Monday, March 16, 2009

On the warpath in the library, Friedman and Gladwell

The 'GFC' is thus far more enjoyable than unenjoyable for me. I have no debt, and perhaps more crucially no real assets. I'm at the begnning of my work life which more crucially I still don't value very much.

Sweetest of all from my vantage point though is that the Global Financial Crisis reveals just what a total piece of shit Thomas Friedman's book 'The World Is Flat' really is. I still don't know if it is one hugely successful practical joke, like China Mieville's 'The Scar' where the characters all chase after the 'Magus Fin' as in 'maguffin' so too does a book called 'The World Is Flat' turn out to be as grosse a misreading of the times and environment as the early notion that the 'World is Flat'.

How is it that Friedman and I can look at the same thing and come to such startling polar opposite conclusions. Namely he looks at the overwhelming number of formally educated, hard working, maths/science/engineering/IT masters graduates being produced by India and China and percieve them as the greatest threat to Western Economic dominance while I on the other hand look at the overwhelming number of formally educated, hard working, maths/science/engineering/IT masters graduates being produced by India and China and conclude that they will most certainly almost never be a threat, ever.

Infact the most threatening things about the 'Big Emerging Markets' is the Small Established Markets dictating the rules of play to them. Western institutions namely the IMF, WTO, World Bank, Ivy League and a smattering of corporations run largely by morons ensure that these nations charge headlong into some universal dead end.

This struck me today in particular because I wanted to sit down for a while and do some drawing feeling footsore in the city. I went to the Business Library in RMIT. It is Tuesday (meaning University students might actually be in attendance) but it's also week 3 (which means the majority should be engaging in skipping classes by now) but alas, the Library! The fucking Library! was packed. Packed with international students hitting the books. Hitting the books in week 3!

I managed to graduate from Business school having never borrowed a book, nor ever, ever having gone to the library for any other reason to meet with a study group to decide who was the most trustworthy one person to do all the work.

How ironic then that I was pissed off that these international students were as I saw it wasting the schools resources (desk space) by engaging in the very activities that the school and library intended. Instead of allowing me (not currently studying) to draw (not a waste of time).

This struck me as laughably odd. Normally I am quite respectful of students. I use the lab computers for example only if it isn't busy and there are plenty of spares, and fuck off if it gets busy. I don't go in at all in the latter half of semester when all the assignments are due.
But today seeing students collapsed onto text books and note books in the library in week 3 of the semester, I just thought - what a complete waste of fucking energy.

Infact even looking at that statement, I'm actually sure if the students were to expend all that energy fucking, it would be energy better spent.

Because University isn't that hard, and it certainly isn't that rewarding.

I remember one of the first classes I decided to skip as often as was humanly possible was 'business computing' where we were taken through the features of 'the office suite' on Microsoft. For a student that completed high school on a laptop, this seemed like a slap in the face with distended testicles.

Having worked though now I can appreciate that a Uni has to have standards and one of those inevitably has to be - that their graduates are not confused and overwhelmed by Word, Excel Spreadsheets, Access Databases and emailing. Having actually had my career fasttracked at one point by rudimentary excel abilities I now realise that the average Business graduate when compared to say the average Nike Shoe is in fact a pretty shoddy and unreliable product.

For example most marketing courses still allow 80% of students to graduate without knowing a working definition of 'Brand Equity' the exact Big-Red-Button-that-You-Do-Not-Push of the whole profession.

So the idea that there is anything to be gained by studying textbooks picked out by lecturers that allow incompetent people to graduate and carry their brand on their resume as the run company after company into the ground is completely laughable.

I've mentioned it before but I'll raise it again because it demonstrates both the stupidity of University and of Economics and Thomas Friedman in general -

To an economist KFC is an incredibly stupid food to eat - not only is it expensive straight up, but the hidden cost of the health hit you take makes it even more expensive than it appears.

So why is it that at KFC the 'stupid' members of the public can form the super efficient 'Omni-queue' Where everyone forms one line and the person at the front goes to whichever of 4 registers opens first and yet RMIT students can't even figure out how to queue for the computers in the computer lab. They instead choose to wander around aimlessly hoping they walk past some random computer at the exact moment that someone decides to pack up and leave.

Education is low in my esteem because it fails to pass the basic test of empiricism. Namely it sets so much of its criteria around hard work, the exact same mistake that in my view Thomas Friedman makes in 'The World is Flat' despite almost no historical evidence that hard work gets you anywhere ever.

I used to have a lecture for 'Advanced Marketing' that I swear awarded grades based on the weight of the final submission. A HD group submitted I report that, I kid you not, was signed by each member in a fountain pen, wrapped in a ribbon and presented in a gift box, the report itself being as thick as a phonebook.

I'm telling you now, both as an employee and as a manager, I would rather see a report written on the back of an envelope than giftwrapped, hand signed and weighing a kilo. The only presentation I as a manager would want giftwrapped in a box, would be a severed finger by way of apology for being a douchebag employee/yakuza member.

And yet, this notion of hard work is a prevailing ideal of academics? How? Serfs in a field work hard. Enemies of Stalin work hard digging holes and filling them in on the siberian Tundra. Every winner in history has done the exact opposite of working hard, they played hard.

So too I would like to read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, simply because I refuse to believe that he honestly concludes that 10,000 hours is what it requires to master something. This by far is the dumbest path to success that has been put forward yet. I'd also like to see why it sells, since my experience of people in general want to always get to some lofty ideal without putting in any effort. Just observe the endless revenue stream that is diet pills, shakes, etc and their attempt to move towards the ideal of losing weight without having to sacrifice/change anything in your lifestyle at all. Or treadmills you 'can use in front of the TV!' or even Australia's dismal Climate Change response (fighting climate change whilst not wanting to lose any jobs, consumer comforts or change our energy policy).

How do these people like Friedman and Gladwell make all this free money from putting out easy to swallow 'science type stuff' books. Globalisation is great, it's simple! and '10,000 hours is the line between success and failure'.

I mean really? That was the regressive common denominator? I can sight Twix examples that would confound that theory... at least. Mozart wrote 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' when he was 5 and was composing from thereafter. If you deduct 2 years for shitting in diapers, learning to walk and talk, 10,000 doesn't stretch far.
The second is speeking, writing, running and so fourth - if I practiced sprinting for 10,000 hours I would still not be able to run it under 10 seconds. I have practiced speaking and writing for at least 10,000 hours and am by no means exceptional at it at all.

I presume again he deals with these objections of prodigies, polymaths and skill inflation in proposing the '10,000 hour' rule and maybe there are a bunch of quit pro quos that accompany it. It is also something that can easily be proven wrong, find someone who practiced something for 10,000 hours and is not very good at it, like say almost everyone who auditions for American Idol, So you think you can dance or most artists in the world.

Sure they may have technical ability, they just may have no imagination, no charisma no nothing.

For me the ideal remains the polymath, or more specifically Musashi Miyamoto's Heiho - the idea you can obtain a state of mind such that you need no instruction in anything and yet can master it.

All this said, I don't believe hard work is the answer, and I don't believe it ever posed a threat.

My old housemate Liam, said 'Hardwork is always admirable' a sentiment any George Orwell fan should be proud of. Alas is digging a trench, whilst qualifying as hard work really valuable? Is running around a track continuously really valuable? You can probably imagine situations where they might be. (you can hopefully imagine situations where they might be). Alas 'always' is the criterion for admirable. The truth is value is value. It's much more important than how hard you work to obtain it.

If there was one single piece of advice I wish I could give to every university graduate in the world it is this:

'Hard Work is disgraceful if it is work nobody values' in my brief career I have seen too many bright young things get mired down in the misery of unappreciated workaholia.

They are almost universal too. They work overtime at the bequest of nobody, based on an assumption that that's the way to get ahead and then get ticked off that this unsolicited effort isn't recognised with reward or even recognition. This allows exponential growth of the chip on their shoulder which sadly leads to often to redoubled efforts to work harder, like that fucking horse in Animal Farm.

Listen, the will and enthusiasm that is present in the young students of the Big Emerging Market is refreshing and admirable, they do arguably have an advantage in that they don't take their lifestyles for granted. They may also be making a mistake that US military policy also doesn't take resource supported lifestyles for granted.

What the Subcontinental and Asian cultures seem to take for granted though are bogus universals that simply don't exist.

People are people, so we are really talking about memes again that hold certain cultures/arguable civilizations back. But a manager that is certain to choke and die early vs a manager with a chance of survival have a clear cut rule which I call the 'Variability rule' of management.

Put simply, managers who don't realise that personalities can vary from person to person are doomed to failure. Managers that realise they do might succeed.

In the case of working with other people, being able to entertain the possibility that other people might think differently is a tremendous advantage. It is the old saying 'If the Map doesn't match the territory, the Map is wrong'.

Belief in universals, like hard work, the prestige of being a doctor, that wealth equates to happiness and most crucially that official status is more important than self esteem are 'Map over ground' thinking. No matter how insistent these memes are, if you walk around long enough insisting the Map is more correct than reality, sooner or later you are going to fall into a ravine.

Not having access to student academic records, I can't verify my suspicion, but I have seen enough articles to suggest it may be the case - many international students, despite all the efforts they put in above and beyond local lazy's obtain barely any advantage over local students. Many I understand simply fail.

I'm still waiting for China to invent something useful/helpful to the world at large, other than a massive market to hide the fact that our materialistic growth fetish is unsustainable and not improving anyone's life.

At any rate in the Global Financial Crisis my predictions are looking much better than Friedman's, and nobody reads my blog at all. (I guess under money making criterion, his predictions are still looking much, much better than mine).

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