Archive for the required skill sets? Category

People talk of craft these days, if they talk about it at all, to bemoan its absence.  We complain about the lack of craftsmanship in what we buy, and we complain about how the modern world of mass production has replaced a world of artisans and craftsmen.

But, as is the case of so many of our complaints, we rarely look in the mirror.

How many of us, really, have spent our lives in the pursuit of a craft?  Be honest.

Most of us haven’t.  We’ve been too busy focusing on our jobs and being producers and consumers.  We haven’t had time to be interested in the pursuit of a “craft.”

Aside:  I’ve used italics here because I’m not just talking about “traditional” crafts  like cabinetmaking or basket-making or blacksmithing.  I’m not talking out of some nostalgic pastoralism.  I’d much rather live in today’s world than some pre-industrial world, because in today’s world I”m much more likely to be able to enjoy the fruits of other’s craftsmanship.

No, I’m speaking of the attitude of the craftsman toward his craft.

The true craftsman cares about craft for its own sake, not because its a job or production requirement.    The true craftsman goes beyond what others ask for.  He explores deeper.  He develops skills and ways of seeing that ordinary producers or consumers employers or employees never even contemplate a need for.  He does so, not because someone has asked these things of him, but because the craft, and his personal character, demand attention to them.

When I think of craft, I always think of my late father.  I did not appreciate it while he was alive, but as I’ve aged I’ve increasingly realized just how unusual he was. (I was, alas, only 18 when he died, firmly in the grip of the sophomoric adolescence that would still control me for a couple more decades.)

Dad was a master plumber, but he never made a lot of money.  He could have — even in those days, master plumbers could make a pretty penny if they desired.  I had more than my older sister and brother did, but even I wore hand-me down clothes until I was nearly in high school.

My dad moved to a different beat.

I never realized just how good Dad was as a plumber until I owned my own house and started hiring plumbers for repairs and re-modelling projects.  Until I realized that even most people who the state certifies as “masters” weren’t in his league.

I’m not complaining of the work these other plumbers did for me — it has generally been just fine at getting the hot water to my shower and the feces safely to the sewer.

But Dad, his understanding of plumbing took him beyond the mundane  into the realm of art.  He could solder a fitting without just a fine uniform line of solder showing:  no globs, no drips, no errors.  (This was back when all plumbers used copper for hot/cold water service.)  And he’d do so whether he was soldering uphill or cramped like a pretzel in a crawl space.

Nothing was wasted.

Take a look at the pipe in your basement sometime.  If it’s like most houses, new or old, done by professionals or DYI, you’ll find a a number of excess fittings used as the plumber dealt with joists, walls, wiring, or the efforts of previous plumbers.   Try tracing the lines to and from each fixture:  it can be like trying to untangle a bowl of spaghetti.

Look at how many 90-degree ells are used.  Ask yourself whether any of the lines might have been better suited to the use of 45-degree fittings.  Traveling the hypotenuse of a triangle by definition uses less pipe than traveling through the other two sides.  However, as anyone who has struggled to remember and apply the Pythagorean theorem knows, its also harder to measure the distance.

I’m not a plumber.  I can fix a toilet or replace a faucet.  But running pipe — frankly I think something as important to your health as plumbing (and it’s far more important than most of the stuff the health care “debate” focuses on) should be left to the professionals.  When I think of the complexity of what they do, frankly I’m amazed.  I wouldn’t have a clue.

But when I think of Dad’s plumbing, I’m not just amazed.  I’m awed.

I guarantee that if you asked him and just about any other plumber of his time to plumb identical new houses in a subdivision, he’d do it with less materials than the other plumber.  And if you looked carefully at the result, his arrangement of pipes would make more sense to you and the system would perform better.

(Not only can you save some pipe by using 45′s instead of 90′s, it can greatly improve the water flow and mean less clogging, freezing, etc.)

But the real craftsmanship of what he did would come down the line, when the owner of the house wants to remodel or build on or replace the bathtub with a jacuzzi.  When you realize that he didn’t just build “to last”, he built “to modify easily” at the same time.

But really, that’s just his output as a craftsman.  What really matters is how he got there.

He got there because he was driven by plumbing, how and why it works.  He was like Scotty on the original Star Trek — he read tech manuals in his spare time.  He didn’t just go to hardware/plumbing supply shows (he also ran a hardware business) to find new products to sell, he went to listen to what the other tech types were saying about new materials, techniques, and tools.  He listened not just to what a new tool would do, but the reasoning behind the development of the tool.  He had a curiosity about everything that might remotely affect plumbing.   Less than a year before his death at the age of 57, he completed a design course that required him to travel 35 miles each way to attend class.  And, were he still alive, I expect he would still be extending his craft.

Not because he needed to keep up with his discipline.  He was far enough beyond the usual plumber that the only “continuing education” he would have needed was to keep track of the idiocies non-plumbing bureaucrats keep thinking up.

No, that’s not why he did it.  He did it because, for him, plumbing was important in its own right.

Why did he value plumbing so much?   I don’t know.  That’s one of the things I never thought to ask him until long after he was gone.  And, to be honest, when I was a kid, I would much rather he would have spent less time on it.  But whatever the reason, whether it was what he should have valued or not, that was what he was.

And that attitude is what made him not just a plumber, but a craftsman.

Personally, I think the world would be better off if more people took my dad’s approach to life.  But if they don’t, the problem isn’t in “the system” or “the economy.”

The problem is in the mirror.

 

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You are your info flow.

It’s long been the case.  If you teach, it’s going to be real hard to keep up with progress in your field.  Especially if you want to do things like sleep and hang out with friends and family.

And it’s harder than ever, because “keeping up” means paying attention not just to the narrow field of your own research, it means paying attention to not-so-parallel developments in several others.   And there’s more going on in every darn one of them.

Look, I’ve never met a college professor who wasn’t a big reader.   And if you visit a professor’s house, invariably you’ll see a lot more books than you’ll see in the houses of others.  Oh, novelists probably will be pretty close.  And there’s the occasional lawyer or business CEO.  But you want to see a lot of books, the place to go is a professor’s house.   It’s a good bet that you’ll find shelves of them, not just in the office or “study”, but in just about every room of the house.

The book collections are deceptive, however.   Watch those professors more carefully, and you’ll see that while they’ll still be processing a lot of written information, it’s not professional keep-up-with-the-field reading that they’re doing.    It’s student papers, drafts of committee memos, letters of reference for job applicants, email, class prep.

And that’s after they’ve left campus for the day.   If you think professors are sitting in their offices reading books and articles … forget it.  They’re in class, they’re in hallways talking to students, they’re meeting with their department chair about a problem student, they’re advising, they’re in meetings, meetings, meetings.

And if they do get home and find everything is graded (happens twice a year, about 15 minutes before the end-of-semester report goes to the registrar’s office, if there’s no family errand or house repair  or visiting relative to deal with, the book they pull out is likely to be a bestselling novel.

So I was imprecise:  I’ve rarely met a college professor who wasn’t at one time a big reader.  The problem is that “one time” was yesterday for lots of us.

Now, there are exceptions.  I’m not talking here about the people at top research institutions, those who have the biggest publish-or-perish pressure, and who (more often than not) have substantially lower teaching loads.  But there are a lot more college faculty out there who have 6 or more courses and 150+ students a year to have regular contact with, than there are those who have 4 courses or less and a graduate teaching assistant or six.  And that’s not even including those adjunct faculty who have to teach 8, or 10, even 12 courses a year, often commuting between multiple institutions.

No, it doesn’t surprise me that the average college teacher lags farther and farther behind progress in the field the older he or she gets.  Frankly, sometimes I’m amazed we do any field reading at all.

But the purpose of this article is not to whine about the college teacher’s lot in life. It’s not to rail against the unreasonable expectations of publication-or-perish or the stupid waste of mental resources that faculty commitee meetings entail.

No, I simply want to highlight a hidden, perhaps unavoidable, constraint on the effectiveness of teachers.  A constraint that makes effective teaching more problematic every day. A constraint that makes it increasingly questionable that the flagship economic institutions of higher education — the university and the 4-year college — will satisfy the educational functions that we would have them serve.

In today’s world, you are your information flow.  If you’re good at acquiring and interpreting the information you get and transmit, you’ll managel.  If you aren’t, you won’t.  If there’s a single skill set that determines how well a college graduate will do, it’s the skill set called “using information.”

“You are your information flow” isn’t new to 2009.  What is new, however, is that those we have traditionally tasked to ensure college graduates have the “using information: skill set, are themselves less and less likely to be masters of that skill set.

Mastering the information flow means, among other things, being closer to the cutting edge, not farther away.

Mastering the information flow means being close enough to the cutting edge that one has the right critical thinking and communication and interpretive skills for assessing when something is cutting edge and when it isn’t.

It isn’t that college professors need to be cutting edge researchers themselves, though that is one way to increase the odds.   It’s that college professors need to be able to channel more and more cutting edge information that more and more people are creating.

And channeling here is not merely possessing some New-Agish sort of drain pipe unclogger.  It’s knowing when to use PVC pipe and when to use copper, when to use a 90? ell and when to use a 45? bend, and when to put a plug in the line.  When to turn the faucet full open and when to run just a trickle.

While some of the plumbing of interpretation works the same in 2009 as it did in 1909 or 1809, much of it cannot.   Any more than today’s water supply can be governed by the rules Edwin Chadwick proposed when he was first advocating modern sewers for metropolitan London in the 19th century.

If we want our students to avoid being awash in the sewage of the Internet age, to avoid the informational choleras and influenzas that are going to be out there, we need to provide them with up-to-date master plumbers.

Not with lots of world experts on outhouse cleaning.

But for now, I gotta go.  My sink’s plugged again.

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140 words or less?

I woke up this morning and before I even logged on, I realized I had screwed up yesterday.  I was tempted to lie and say that my reference to the “150 character limit” of Twitter was a typo.   But no one would believe me anyway, and, besides, a mea culpa offered a better blog opportunity.  (Thanks again to Mark for  pointing out the error and demonstrating, again, just how quick error correction happens in the Internet age.)

The error wasn’t a typo.  It simply reflected the fact that I’m not as far along Internet-wise as I need to be.

I got the length limit wrong.  Because while I believe that Twittering demonstrates an essential skill for the flat world, I don’t Twitter much.

Yet.

Because, to be honest, I’m just not very good at it.

Yet.

When you spend most of your adult life acquiring the skills of the verbose, it takes more than a little effort to shorten things up.

For me, learning to speak in bullet points was the first step; learning to reduce things to a page or less in the manner of executive summary was the second.  And now I’m more or less on the third step, learning to write a short email.

And of course, there’s the regular falling off the wagon.  “A few bullets” can quickly explode into several pages in the corned powder of an academic-in-recovery.  The executive summary remains the hardest part of any report for me to write, and write well.  And anyone who reads here knows I have real trouble keeping blog articles under 1000 words.

Too, David’s comments on my last post crystallized something for me.  I’m used to seeing words as making arguments, as existing for persuade.  And persuasion of an educated person should only take place after the presentation of evidence.  And presenting evidence within 140 words is hard enough.  In 140 words?

But “persuasion” is more than argument.  Persuasion is also becoming interested, being provoked into thinking differently.  And those parts of the process ought not to be focused on evidence.  In fact, are less productive if they are.

Entrepreneurship, innovation, creativity….these things come about because people refuse to worry constantly about the “can’ts” and the “what if’s” and the “what about’s”?  Because they only insist on evidence at particular parts of the process.

So  back to Twitter…well, can I just say it scares me and leave it at that?

No?  Crap.

You’re right.  I can’t.  And neither can you.  Because, and I can guarantee that 90+% (probably 99+%) of academics are going to disagree, being able to Tweet well is at least as important a thinking skill as being able to write a term paper.

No, I’ll go farther.  It’s a more important thinking skill.

Writing term papers, writing reports — those are skills of an entry-level tiny-cubicle employee.  One with no more career upside than Milton Waddams in Office Space.

Tweeting?  Tweeting is a skill of project managers.

No, of CEOs.  CEOs have to be good at weighing evidence, of course.  But they also have to be good at seeing opportunities and judging well in the absence of evidence.

And in a world of constant technological and cultural change, where three strategic moves have to be made before evidence on one is in, it’s a skill more valuable than ever.

Much as I enjoyed Stephen Root in his role as Milton, I’ll give you one guess whether I think we should be emulating his approach to skill development.

So, excuse me.  I’ve got to cut things short.

I’ve got to go follow some CEO tweets and see if I can figure out how they do it.

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Observation #1:  “Students don’t read anymore.”
Observation #2:  CEOs write a lot shorter emails than I do.

If I’ve heard the sentiment of Observation #1 expressed once by colleagues and fellow teachers, I’ve heard it a thousand times.  When I’m not thinking carefully about my own language, I still say it sometimes myself.

But we’re mistaken.  Very mistaken.

The problem isn’t that students don’t read.  The problem, when it is a problem, is in what students read and how they read it.

The young read.  Watch their surfing of the Internet.  Oh, sure, they probably watch YouTube videos more often than most of the people reading this blog do. The cliche about this being a visual generation does, as most cliches do, have a large amount of truth in it.  But they’re also reading.  A lot.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say they process nearly as many words via reading as we do.

What they don’t do — and this is, or can be, a problem — is read what we want them to.   They read in portions of 300 words or less, not long blog articles of 3000 words like I tend to write, and certainly not books of 30,000 or 100,000 words.

And — and this can be, and often is, a much bigger problem — they don’t read critically enough.

And, not reading critically enough, they also don’t write or speak or collaborate well enough.

But, short reading spans, by themselves, need not be bad.  In fact, if sufficiently focused, they can be better and more productive.

CEO email reveals the point.

For example, last week I found myself involved in a brief email exchange with a Silicon Valley CEO when a Luther colleague and fellow consultant brought me into a discussion he and the CEO had been having.  Despite my best efforts, however, each of my contributions to the conversation was longer than it should have been.    The first was about 500 words, the second coming in at just over 220.  By comparison, the CEO’s reply to my first came in under 100.

Five years ago, this might have bothered me. I would have treated his brevity as insufficient engagement with my ideas.

And I would have been wrong.  Deeply so.  For, were I to share the exchange here, were you to look at those three e-mails, you would see him engaging matters at least as deeply as I did  Probably more so.

His less-than-100-word e-mail was chock full of content.  Every word counted.  Every word moved my thinking along.  Every word required me to think.

Even though I’m guessing it took him very little time to write.  Much less effort than I expended in trying to keep my two even as short as they were.

Now, last week I was fortunate.  The CEO took the time to listen to my long-windedness. (Maybe he was stuck in a security line at the San Francisco airport.)  But I also know that if I want to have conversations with CEOs I must strive to keep each e-mail as short as I can get it.  Because I know, the longer I get, the more I risk losing their attention.

When it comes to real-world communication, the choice is not between “short” and “value-packed.”  The choice is between “short and value-packed” on one hand and “not read” on the other.

And the choice gets starker every day.  CEOs (and non-CEOs) are cramming that value into shorter and shorter spaces, via texting and via the 150-character limit of Twitter.

Which brings me back to the matter of student reading and (by inference) writing habits:

The problem should not be seen as getting students to read more.  It’s getting them to read better.  And realizing — as, unfortunately, more students do than teachers — that better isn’t always a function correlated with length.

Yes, I know.  Not everything of value can be encapsulated in 100 words, much less in 150 characters.  Students still are going to need to read and comprehend longer stuff.  Of course.

The CEO knows that, too.  My first contact with him was after that same colleague passed on his request for books on the history of technology.

He reads a lot of longer articles (though, alas for me, probably not my blog).  And he reads a lot of books, probably more than most of my teaching colleagues, even those non-stop readers over in the humanities.  Teachers, want to get your students to read more books?  Invite a few CEOs in, and ask them to mention how much they read.  The “Whooaaa!” you get from students will be priceless.

The point isn’t package everything in Twitters or 100-word emails or executive summary bullet points.  The point is that stuff packaged in Twitters and 100-word emails and executive summaries must be value-packed.

The problem isn’t that students have short attention spans.  The problem is that too many of those bits of short attention are spent on words with a low value content.

The governing criterion isn’t length at all.

It’s value-per-word.

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In the world of direct mail marketing, someone who can consistently write copy that generates a five percent response rate will soon be making well into six figures.  Think about the fraction of your junk mail that you open, much less bother to respond to the offer included therein, and you see why.   Five percent is huge.

Being able to write that kind of copy is rare.  Not only do you need a command over the language that dwarfs that of the average professor of English, you must be able to identify and pull upon people’s deep emotional triggers.  If you want to hire one of those established high-response copywriters, you’re likely going to have to wait a while before they get to your package.

And positive response does not necessarily mean conversion.  Not all direct mail is designed to sell directly — some is designed primarily to get the prospect to provide contact data and “request more information.”  And even those solicitations seeking immediate sale must deal with returns and cancelled orders decreasing the total.

But 5 percent is usually going to be considered an excellent response.

Yet even a five percent positive response means 19 out of 20 people have a negative one.  19 out of 20 don’t order.  19 out of 20 don’t listen to the message.  And when the product being sold is an innovative one, 19 out of 20 don’t change their lives.

Direct mail can thrive on 1 out of 20.  (Actually, it can thrive on a good deal less.)

Even with increasing postage and printing costs, even having to pay royalties to the copywriter (most of those 5% copywriters are going to demand a royalty on every letter mailed, not just on the one’s that actually get a response), even with all the other costs incident to using the U.S. Snail, the cost of sending junk mail remains pretty cheap.

Take just postage, one of the two biggest costs of any direct mail campaign (the other is printing).  The most expensive per-piece mailing I’ve seen are some of those sent by political fundraisers who get the benefits of “nonprofit” subsidies and the distribution of federal election funds.  Fancy mailing tubes, clear plastic envelopes showing a crisp new dollar inside, enclosing return first class postage.  My mother (the elderly are natural prey for such variations) actually has received solicitations sent by certified mail!

But these are the exception.   The USPS rate for bulk mailing of a letter via standard mail by a for-profit enterprise can be as low as 14.6 cents.

Now, compare direct mail’s world to that of higher education.  The direct mail copywriter’s job is tough — identifying and pulling on deep emotional triggers of the prospect.  Most people aren’t that good at reading others.  But if educators are doing what I claim they should, and striving to aid students in developing understanding (as opposed to just acquiring knowledge), they are trying to change those deep triggers, a much more difficult job.

And, not unsurprisingly, the per-student cost of that educating is far, far larger than the few-dollars-per-item of even the most extravagant direct mail campaign.  And not even the most wasteful of nonprofits, the ones who mail my mother one or more letters almost every day, are will spend per person in a year what it costs to provide a year of college-level education.

Which brings me to the kicker:  Given their difficult task, given the orders-of-magnitude-greater costs of educating, what are higher ed’s response rates?  What would be a good response rate?  What would a bad one?

Each of these proves to be a bit of a trick question, because as far as I can tell, no one knows.  Unlike direct mail, we simply haven’t developed the “metrics” needed.  When it comes to the productivity of education, terms like “response” and “conversion” are little more than (perhaps) useful abstractions.

Consider, for example, the five possible routes we might have for getting the answers needed.  Each of these represents “evidence” that some people look to when trying to evaluate the performance of institutions or teachers.  In practice, each of them is at best pretty bad at actually assessing how institutions or teachers enable understanding.

Method 1:  Look at the bottom line.  Institutions that are doing well are presumptively providing sufficient value to their customers because their customers are paying more than the education costs.  Institutions that run on red ink are not.  Market success is evidence of market value.  As an economist type, I have a good deal of sympathy for such a “revealed preference” argument, but most in higher education — lacking my “bias” toward markets — are going to reject such a claim out of hand.

And in one significant way, they are correct.  Education isn’t just about satisfying current needs.  It isn’t just about providing students (or their parents, or their scholarship granters) with what they want.  It’s about shaping their ways of thinking so their ways of wanting can evolve.  Internet pornographers satisfy wants, but they aren’t particularly good at education are they?

Method 2:  Look at student evaluations.  These are higher ed’s version of the “customer satisfaction survey.  Several months ago I ranted here about the evil surveys inundating our e-mail and popping up on web sites.  Compared to the way in which colleges and universities typically collect information about student satisfaction, however, those emails and pop-ups represent cutting-edge information gathering.  Survey design is very difficult and time consuming — and the faculty committees that design student evaluations simply lack the time (and sometimes the quantitative understanding) to be very good at it.

But even if overnight all student evaluations magically became the epitome of quality survey design, they would still be problematic in measuring the development of “student understanding.”  Understanding isn’t revealed by what people say after an educational experience, it’s revealed by how they think and do in the rest of their life.

Method 3:  Look at alumni giving, especially at the giving of those more distant in time from their graduation.  Alumni have had time to reflect on the value they have received.  If after 5 years or 10 years or 20 they have decided to give, that says something about how valuable they see their education as having been.

Though I’m not sure whether an annual gift at the level of a car payment or two reflects a high or low perception of that value.  And I’m certainly not willing willing to say that the differential rates of alumni giving between Harvard University and the average liberal arts college reflect in any significant way a greater development of student understanding over the years.

And, more importantly, I’m not at all clear on how one goes about connecting levels of alumni giving to claims about what happened years before on the level of individual faculty member working with individual student.  Even if we accept the debatable premise that economic affluence is neatly correlated with greater understanding, how are we to tell that affluent alums “grew” because of their educator’s efforts or despite them?

Method 4:  Look at letters faculty receive from former students.  Every faculty member I know has received this sort of letter.  They’re wonderful to get, and valuable.  They invariably say that your efforts have paid off.  That all the crap you deal with as a teacher is “worth it.”  That some are listening and learning and developing better understanding.

And the responses are generally quite detailed and specific, so one can get some real meaningful feedback on what might have happened inside the writer’s mind as a result of your teaching effort.

Only, this kind of evidence has two problems.   Big ones.

First, every faculty member who has taught for any period of time gets these letters from time to time.  Even the bad ones.  (Indeed, in my experience, some of the teachers who keep the best track of such letters, as in being able to pull them out of their file drawers in bunches as opposed to leaving them as part of general office clutter or tossing them out shortly after receiving them,  are among the worst teachers in the academy.)  And so there is a real problem in correlating the comments with “best teaching practices.”

Second, the rate at which these letters trickle in (over a period of years and decades, not days weeks like the feedback from direct mail packages) is well under 5%.  And we don’t really know how to interpret the 95%.   We don’t know whether the non-writing former students consider us to have been wasters of their time and money, or whether they learned so much that they are simply too busy to write.

Method 5:  Essay exams.  Since teachers are in the business of giving exams, you would think they could design exams that tested understanding as well as knowledge transmission.  But can we?

Yes, we can evaluate the quality of their response to our questions.  (Assuming we can figure out the correct questions to ask, which itself is easier said than done:  questions that truly test “understanding” of the economic way of thinking that can be answered in a take-home essay, much less on a timed exam,  as opposed to ones that test the ability to “think like the professor,” prove very, very difficult to write.  Writing and grading a “List and explain the causes of the Civil War” question is straightforward.  Writing and grading a “Discuss the importance for us of the causes of the Civil War” is a far different matter.

And using an exam to dig deeper still, to evaluate the development of an ability to ask questions? To evaluate the ability to decide whether an economic or historical way of thinking should be applied in a particular case?   Well, many dedicated teachers I’ve talked to about are so skeptical of exams in this regard that they see no point in trying.

Alas, any current methods for measuring the response we ought to be looking for remain rudimentary.  We in the education business will learn a lot if we look at the practices of direct mail marketers, for at this moment in time they have developed sophisticated methods we have barely explored.  Ultimately, however, we need measurement tools that will go far beyond theirs.  Tools that measure responses most marketers, direct mail or otherwise, don’t need to be concerned with.

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As I was using Exposé to find a particular window this morning, I realized just how radically my use of the computer has morphed in the last couple years or so.

While I think of myself as a student and proponent of innovation, I’m rarely on the cutting edge of things.   Not even close:  my blog is less than six months old; I barely know how to text-message; and I still have never used instant-messaging.  When it comes to technological sophistication, I may have improved by an order of magnitude in the last couple years, but that only means I’m at a eighth grade level rather than the 3rd-grade level I used to be at.

And so the morphing of my computer use gets me wondering about exactly how unusual is my experience?  How much have others who don’t consider themselves “early adopters” or “leading the charge”, others who know they are “behind the curve”, still changed in their use of computer technology?

So, I thought I’d throw out for comparison a top ten list.  This list is the ten pieces of software “most important” to me right now.   They’re in no particular order, save that I think each of the 10 is substantially more important than anything that might be #11.
1.    Firefox.  Browser #1
2.    Safari.  Browser #2.  Still has some features I’m more familiar with.
4.    WordPress.  Blogging.
5.    Inspiration.  Mind-mapping.
6.    MindManager.  More mind-mapping.  Neither Inspiration nor MindManager has all the features of the other.
7.    NetNewsWire.  RSS reader.  Been using less than a month.  I can’t believe I did without it.  Funneling the information I need into headline form in one place, plus folders for quick and dirty clipping of “to read/use later” stuff.
8.    TextEdit.  Just what it says….text, text, and more text.  Compose it here, then cut and paste it to wherever.
9.    Acrobat.  Starting to want to do things with pdf files that can’t do with the free Reader.
10.    OS X Leopard features and utilties. Expose, the character palettes, the Dock, the calculator, the dashboard, QuickTime, etc.
11.    OmniFocus.  Personal time management software.

I think the list is as interesting for what is not on it, as for what is.  No email client — I still use Thunderbird, and at some point I’ll probably go back to it or another email client, but 90 percent of my email checking is now done via my web browser.

And the biggest omission, no “full feature” word processor.

I still use Word, but pretty much just for (i) documents where I need footnotes, tables, and other extensive formatting features or (ii) old documents that I’m finishing up or referring back to.  For my day to day work with composing, outlining, synthesizing, writing information….it’s much more efficient to jump back between text editor and mind map and browser.  The big word-processing software simply isn’t necessary anymore on a daily basis.

To be honest, none of my three word-processors (Word, AppleWorks, and an ancient copy of Wordperfect for Mac that probably doesn’t even work in Leopard), alone or in combination, is even going to be in my list of 15 most essential software:  in addition to the 10 above, right now they are  below, let’s see, Stickies, ActivityMonitor, QuickBooks, MindMeister, iCal, Thunderbird, iTunes.  And falling almost on a daily basis.

I’m betting within 6 months, there will be another five to ten applications on my list with more importance.

Anyway, that’s my list.  What’s on yours?

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Here’s a little test:  What’s going on on your desktop right now?

Here’s mine, as of the time I was writing this entry:

On the computer:  besides writing this blog, I’ve got my email open and one message started, a MindMeister map being edited, five more browser tabs, an old Inspiration mindmap, three TextEdit documents in various stages of completion, my Omnifocus project list being edited.  And in the last 20 minutes or so I’ve sent off 4 article links to various people.  And I’ve managed to reduce the unread items in my RSS feeder to 19…er, sorry, that just refreshed.  It’s now 49 unread items.

And of course there’s the offline stuff.  Forget the unscheduled interruptions from the other occupants of the house, which no one can avoid.  I’m writing checks (and making sure I have the bucks in the account to cover them), I’ve got a “don’t forget” list for tomorrow’s road trip to southwest Iowa for fine cuisine, two magazines, no wait, four magazines, and three books open.  And somewhere, I imagine, there’s the newspaper I picked up off the porch at 5 a.m.

Yes, it is safe to say that I suffer from what the author of the blog Rands in Repose five years ago, labelled Nerds Attention Deficiency Disorder.  (Here’s the blog entry.  Read it and the comments.  It’s fascinating stuff, and like much stuff about the Internet, both troubling and exciting.)

I don’t want to minimize the problems of ADD.  I’ve seen both friends and students who have it, and it can be utterly disabling.  But reading the RinR article, I wonder whether there’s something else going on out there with other people.

I’m thinking in particular of the tendency of teachers and employers and parents and assorted old farts like me to talk about young people’s laziness and lack of anything approaching a meaningful attention span.   I’m wondering how often we old farts see laziness and/or zero attention span, and what’s really happening is NADD in action.  That a lot of the people we are chastising for failing to follow our rules and doing what we want them to do the way we want them to do it are actually being very, very productive and hard-working indeed.

That’s one of the reason I encourage you to read not just the original RinR entry about NADD, but all the hundred or so comments thereto.  Because if you look at the people commenting, what you see is a bunch of really smart people getting a lot of stuff done.  In short, not low productivity, but very high productivity.  A good thing.  A really good thing.

I’m wondering, instead of trying to instill traditional notions of “attention!” in our students, whether we should be figuring out how to spread the NADD disorder.  Might it be a necessary skill set for the 21st century?

I’m not yet ready to add NADD to the “1000 Cool Things” list.  But I’m tempted.

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All content of this blog, except comments added under names other than "Wade," are copyright © 2008, 2009 Wade E. Shilts