Archive for September, 2012

Lesson: Getting Through a “Blunder-Storm”

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

When I was working at Handspring, we had a fair number of technology blunders such as cheap paint that would scratch easily, dead screen LEDs, electrical problems, wrong software versions getting released, and lost user data. You hope to catch most during alpha development and fix most by the end of beta testing. Always, some things would be let through. As a longtime Apple product consumer, I have seen a similar share of technology blunders which also seemed forgive-able because Apple was a champ at compatibility testing and I knew that it was impossible to test every possible combination of Apple and 3rd party products. But it is with extreme disappointment that I view Apple’s release of iOS 6 for the iPad – and just because I thought  Apple had mastered the art of new product experience (sometimes called the out-of-box experience or OOBE). The Map app is one such blunder which has set Apple’s reputation back significantly. It’s received quite a lot of press but I had not realized the enormity of its impact until I actually applied the iOS 6 update. It first begs the question why everyone in the approval line allowed this Map app to get into public release and hands (even a beta test should have revealed this showstopper). Not only is Apple’s iPad engineering group in question here, the management is also is in serious doubt. Is this just an aberration or a sign of an overall cultural degradation? Using Google Maps from a web browser isn’t really a solution because all the 3rd party apps which rely on the built-in Map engine have also been taken down as well. It just so happens that I use quite a few iPad apps that use the Map engine: Yelp, OpenTable, Redfin, Zillow,, TruxMap, TripAdvisor,… and the vulnerability is now clear to developers. I could accept it as an oversight I suppose – if it wasn’t for the Microsoft-esque addition of a VIP “non-feature” in the iPad Mail app. Perhaps the iOS 6 Product Manager went on medical leave at some critical juncture? Problem is I don’t see (at this moment) a way out – except to get my hands on an iPad which still has iOS 5.

Below are screen shots of maps from the Redfin app using iOS 6 (top) and Google Maps from Safari (bottom) for the same neighborhood in Davis, CA. Two areas are mis-spelled – “ALHAMBRE” and “COTTEGES.” For full disclosure, I did find that Google Maps mis-places the pin for the Frontier Fertilizer Superfund site in Davis (right over someone’s home a little to the north; so it’s not perfect) but Apple’s Map app doesn’t locate it at all (useless).

I would characterize this as a “blunder-storm” where enough has happened that it calls a lot of intangible qualities into question. For YCISL, it would be great to simulate such a situation and work out how to approach, get through, get past or get around this problem. There’s probably no shortage of blunder-storms in the news at any given time, so we could do a real world analysis, or create a hypothetical scenario. There are probably good lessons to be learned from this for innovation and leadership.

So if anyone of any influence on this Map app is reading this, take a page out of the NFL Referee “blunder-storm” and do what’s best for your fans.

After-thought: I did experience a worse experience in an update recently. The Bay Area News iPad app, in an update, became totally unusable where the layout became tedious and links went to the wrong article. How does this stuff make it through beta and readiness engineering? And yes, the solution (just as is Apple’s) was to use the web browser version. It looks like this app has been updated and the link problem has been fixed. Layout still awful though.

Update: Just saw an article in the BayAreaNews iPad app titled “Major management shakeup at Apple” by Patrick May (originally published 10/29 /12) which announced the departure of Senior VP of iOS Software Scott Forstall from Apple. I have no idea whether this action will close the loop on the problems discussed, but I hope the culture can be restored and rescued (hint: Airport Utility 6.x).

Thoughts: On taking a position

Friday, September 21st, 2012

Today’s story on FaceBook making plans to allow younger people to sign up for accounts is full of cross-opinion.

Think of other issues that the YCISL participants may relate to differently because of their age.

Thoughts: Why are some textbooks so off-target?

Friday, September 21st, 2012

This entry is about a personal peeve that has flared me up numerous times in the past, and has done so once again this evening. The worst prime examples I have come across are just about every California Math textbook I have seen. Previously, it was the Scott Foresman series and today it is the Prentice Hall edition. With bad textbooks like these, how can anyone not explain the struggles that students have learning and teachers have teaching? Grades and scores don’t measure proficiency, they reflect the results of a sporting competition (ie, could be one result on a particular day, and another on the next). Here are the specifics…

In one Scott Foresman California Math textbook, there was a word problem involving calculating the number of tiles needed to tile a bath. Now just how many kids have tiled a bath? Then there are the problems involving building a picket fence and taking connecting buses to reach a destination. How hard is it to know these are hardly contextual across the scope of the students? How could the editors be so negligent in their responsibility to create a functional learning platform?

To today’s case with the Prentice Hall Practice book. There are several problems (section 2.2) about multi-step problem solving. The examples in the textbook show how to set up a single variable problem. Several of the word problems are actually two variable problems (and hence two equation problems). – just search for solutions to these problems on the Internet and you will find that all provide a multi-variable solution. And some of the word problems are also significantly out of audience context – Cell phone bill?! Vacation expenses?! – these are cases where adults are presenting adult problems for learning. This is SO WRONG.

So, one can expect a significant portion of students to not immerse themselves in the context (isn’t that the point of word problems?) and hence not to be able to solve the problem without help and hints. Even with help, these practice problems serve no useful purpose as applying the same logic to a similar problem mathematically is not possible because of un-relatable context. What a waste of time (oh yes, one of those Homework issues – where homework problems are extensions of classroom examples and not interwoven). But some may contend that this confusion and irrelevancy is intentional – aimed at creating scoring striations – you have to include some problems where a segment of students will almost certainly get wrong – that’s how we differentiate students and justify grade differences. These would be adults who are in the business of teaching, but not in the business of learning (teaching being the external phenomenon, and learning being an interfacial phenomenon). I got this cynical viewpoint from the time I read that the difficulty of SAT questions are periodically adjusted so that a  fairly smooth distribution of scores can be predicted and attained – to evenly distribute across percentiles. Great for assessment, loathsome for learning.

To relate to the YCISL format, our aim is to make our learning accessible to all participants. We attempt to accomplish this by using fun as a motivator and fun is mainly be derived by being within relatable context. With motivation and context, we can readily demonstrate empowerment and useful experience. To borrow from Daniel Pink’s “Drive,” in our program design we strive to set up exposure to Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose in YCISL. We enable mastery by not laying out traps intentionally to thin the herd; we set objectives then observe and answer questions to inculcate Autonomy and steer away from one-size-fits-all; and by encouraging user-generated youth context settings, we establish a Purpose that clarifies individual leadership ability and teamwork mindsets that present natural lifelong learning lessons and growth opportunities.

Thoughts: Lessons from the Y2E2 Experiment

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

In my view, the Jerry Yang & Akiko Yamazaki Environment & Energy Building at Stanford University is unsuccessful in so many respects and in total – but we can chalk that up to the experimental nature of the building. But still, one would hope that diligent experimental design would have produced a better experiment. This is one experiment that should end so that another can be started. Accept the failure and learn from the lessons.

Reference Point – The Leslie Shao-Ming Sun Field Station at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve of Stanford University. This is a truly amazing structure and space. It embraces sustainable functionality and efficiency, and maintains productivity while continuing to evolve as challenges get addressed.

Architectural – A few of the individual failures include (a) bathrooms opposite faculty offices [see hallway photo at end of this entry] – demonstrates no consideration of how faculty operate, (b) staff administrator offices with no outside windows – the only personnel who typically stay in their offices 8 am to 5 pm and you suppress natural sunlight to their workspace?, and (c) low-height ceilings in lab offices that are reached by going down one floor then up half a floor? There are many more. An exercise for a YCISL workshop could be jotting down the Y2E2 Features on the walls of the red atrium stairwell, and creating a list of failures – and doing a value analysis. Lesson: Ask. Gather information. Do your homework.

Functional – What would one expect to be the main functions of an academic building at Stanford? Teaching? Research? Study areas for students? As for teaching, there is just 1 formal classroom – someone was thinking “one-size-fits-all.” Conference rooms have been partially re-purposed for teaching but you can guess what happens when a space is used for something other than its intended function (many are not great as conference rooms either). Regarding research, look at the distance separating the various researchers in a group, and the distance of faculty offices from their laboratories –  hardly encourages research and collaboration. As for study areas, I would acknowledge that there are a number of small meeting rooms that students can use to meet for group work or discussion – a reasonable success. Even the scattered sofas and padded chairs are a plus – but it’s less than what was in our previous building, the Terman Engineering Center (TEC). Lesson: Focus quality on main requirements.

Operational – During off-hours, the building is locked and inconvenient to access even for legitimate use. Then there’s package delivery for which there is no system – delivery persons are constantly looking for anyone to sign for a delivery so they can move on to their next stop. Yes, there are the “neat” thermostat-controlled actuated louvers that let cool air in on the 1st floor at out the top of the atria – but is there any fresh air in the basement (where the labs and research students are?) Lesson: A little compatibility testing (even simulated) can be a huge value differentiator. Fail often. Fail fast. Do something about the failures.

Social – Sadly, a net zero social environment is acceptable here given the politically combative environment that exists because of logistical arrangements. The social environment is net zero and is reflected by typical long empty hallways and distance between co-workers (a logistical failure). There was a good-intentioned idea to create theme areas in clusters but it resulted in broken existing ties and turf wars. Social is another area where Y2E2 scores well below TEC. Lesson: Sustainability should attract people, not repel them.

Health – The flame-retardant soaked artwork in the atria (especially in the red atrium where food service takes place) showed a lack of care for environmental health. But also look at the lack of water fountains as well as poor ventilation in the bathrooms. Then there are the hard, unpadded staircases and lack of real sunlight in the inner spaces (mental health not considered). Lesson: Sustainability should nurture a healthy ecosystem.

Environmental – One of the most interesting positive features of Y2E2 is the enhanced thermal transfer between floors because of the non-carpeted floors – I mention this to all visitors as a smart feature. But among some of the less-than-smart things is that building warmth is dependent on actual bodies in the building. Whereas the Sun Field Station anticipates the time people will arrive for work and initiate heaters/coolers to get to a comfortable temperature by the appropriate time, Y2E2 will only heat up when a critical number of bodies get in (if they get in). Cooling is just as unreliable with a central controller determining the delivery of cool air with no regard for how individual spaces are used – again “one-size-fits-all.” On the “positive” side, TEC was worse at heating//cooling. Lesson: Sustainability savings through discouraging occupancy is a net loss.

Logistical – It is mind-boggling how usability was not at the forefront in Y2E2’s planning and design. I’d like to mention even one user-friendly logistical arrangement in Y2E2, but I can’t think of one (right now). How about a simple enough problem needing a forward-thinking solution such as bicycle parking? Nope, just as bad as it was at the TEC. Could’ve just visited a truly bicycle-friendly university campus such as UC Davis. There is the cafe in the red atrium first floor – glad there is a food outlet in the building but it’s situated next to the classroom and a couple of key conference rooms (which have clear glass sides facing the cafe so there is massive distraction in meetings), and its ordering line and waiting area extends into an entry area so traffic jams are common. Lesson: Usability supports sustainability.

Technology – What would it have taken to make the VoIP jacks a different color from the Ethernet jacks? And one has to check in and out a VoIP audio conference speakerphone? Yes, most conference rooms have a Smart Panel to connect a laptop and connection points in the floor and elsewhere – but reliability should be higher. Yes, we have group videoconference units – but they are underutilized because of scheduling policies and lack of support. Lesson: Efficiency also involves time savings. Make it convenient.

Sustainability – I’d like to think that this was a sustainability experiment, but at this time, I wonder whether this was more of a psychology experiment – one in which people’s tolerance for pain, suffering and sacrifice – in the name of sustainability – were tested. This observation has led me to decide that the discussion of sustainability in the YCISL program needs to focus on efficiency, productivity and enhanced health so that intrinsic motivation is optimized, and solutions actually solve problems, not create new ones.

In the picture below: Y2E2 Green atrium area at 9:33 am on Tuesday September 18, 2012. Empty. Un-used. Un-productive. Sustainable – yes.

Game: Creative Definitions

Friday, September 7th, 2012

If you listen to NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!,” you’ll know about the various games that are played [Credit to Jim and Susie for getting me started listening to this show]. Many of these could be adapted as YCISL creativity activities.

Here is an example of one game from the show [from Wikipedia entry]:

Bluff the Listener
The contestant hears three odd but related news stories read by the panelists. Two of the stories are invented by two panelists, with the actual story being read by the remaining panelist. The listener must determine which one is true and not a product of the panelists’ imaginations. The show uses a sound bite from the actual story (either the newsmaker himself or herself, or a reporter or expert familiar with the story) to reveal the answer.

Perhaps we could conduct this game using sustainability-related news?

Another example, we could get groups of three or more students to come up with definitions for unusual words (English, I would presume – I hope this works) and they would present their definitions – and the actual definition – and an example of its use in a sentence. The other participants would vote on which definition they think is correct.

A 3rd example is to have participants create fake announcements for school or their family or friends (eg, parents caught speeding at school drop-off will get citations and fines from the school). Other participants will try to identify the true announcement.

Or students could create their own games using a similar style. Using sustainability as a theme, perhaps we could use the Fill in the Blank game?