May 17, 2010

Fundamental Flaws in American Education

Public education is one of the things that made America great. It surely wasn't the only thing, but it was a huge factor in America becoming the "Land of Opportunity". Unfortunately, any time something becomes institutionalized, it also becomes a target of political, social, and economic forces who view it as a short cut to achieving their goals. Education is even more so a target due to the effective of having nearly all of the very malleable minds in the country captive and required to participate in the activities. Education in America has become a battle ground between opposing sides in far too many wars. Conservatives and Liberals, religious and anti-religious, business versus... well, business fights well enough by itself, call that the civil war of business philosophies, and many other sides fighting to influence the collective minds of American youth. The casualties in this war too often end up being the students who are supposed to be served by education, and instead they become cynical, bitter, and/or hateful. Doesn't matter which of the various sides they end up on, they are given disservice by this situation. At the same time, there are a few who make it through this maelstrom who are highly enabled to thrive in life.

There are a few things that could be changed about our educational institutions which would greatly expand the number of students who are able to greatly thrive as a result of their education. The first thing has to do with those sides. The ability to lobby and influence education is strongly related to it's centralized nature. The solution then would appear to be the decentralization of it. However, there still need to be standards, and those standards are where the various sides will try to attack or influence our youth. Our youth are not stupid, and we should stop treating them like they are. They are inexperienced, and we should try to help them understand the challenges they will face because of that inexperience, but we should do so in a respectful and supportive manner. If there is a side of something presented, then any other side of that issue should also be presented, regardless of how unpopular it might seem. If you don't want certain sides of things presented, then just define that there is an issue, and inform the kids they will have to ask their parents or research it on their own. Also, when an issue with it's various sides is presented, the alignments and history of those sides should be presented, but no side should be favored over another.

Sounds pretty lofty, doesn't it. I know it is possible, cause I had a professor in a philosophy class that did it with such exactness that none of us could guess or even come close to what his personal philosophy was. He ended up being pretty normal.

The next thing that needs to change about education is that we need to stop limiting the growth and progress of some students in order to keep them at the same place as their slower peers. In fact, we need to change our whole approach to education from a group based progress, to individual progress in a structured, yet self paced, environment. There are several forms of this. Some of the older forms often are used in independent study programs, but there are much better scaffolding programs that can incorporate both the independence of the individual as well as social learning and support structures. In this way, each student could progress at a rate where they felt comfortable and could best succeed at.

Thirdly, and there will be many who will think I have political motives here (I really don't. Read carefully and you will see what I am getting at.), we need to change how education is funded. I recognize that if we removed government involvement that we would just be favoring the upper classes over the lower classes. This is not intended, nor desirable. The government has a very important role in the funding of education, as well as in the standards that are set for it and in making sure that it is not abused. However, creating a big bureaucracy and turning over a major portion of each state's budget over to that bureaucracy is worse than most other ways you could go about it. I recognize that any effort to standardize or support or govern education will require government funding, but those funds should be completely separate from the funding of the actual education. The parents should determine which qualified school or teacher should receive the funds paying for their child's education. I am not saying just open up the funding spigots and dump it on private schools. On the contrary, if a private school wants to be eligible to receive public education funds, they should have to meet the standards attached to receiving those funds. In this way, there becomes more of an economy around education, which will help maintain the quality of education.

One last thing, and perhaps this would never fly, but a parent should be required in every class that is conducted. Just to sit in and listen, and they could help if they and the teacher agreed on it. Just one parent. Assuming that each class has 20 students, and half the students have both parents at home, each parent would only have to go to every 30th class. The point here is that the parent is the consumer. They are the customer. They need to know what is going on, and far too many parents are complacent to just ship the kids off and not look into the quality of the education again until report card time, and sometimes, not even then. Would this create an additional burden on parents? Sure it would. And for those who have a lot of kids, even more so. If you have that many kids, you need to be involved. I suppose you could designate someone else such as a grandparent, or some other responsible adult relative, and meeting the requirements should be somewhat flexible, but a parent needs to be there. The result this would have would be better performance by the teachers, the students, and most especially, the parents.

Scary, isn't it. But, it would work. I am sure of it.

May 15, 2010

How much wealth is too much?

I was reading a wikipedia entry yesterday about globalization. One of the statements was that "The three richest people possess more financial assets than the poorest 10% of the world's population, combined." Now, it said there was a citation needed, and the link they listed there got a 404 error (meaning not found). However, it got me to thinking. How much wealth is too much wealth. Is there a problem when someone is vastly successful and thereby amasses amazing wealth. I don't have a problem with people being successful, as long as they were honest, and didn't abuse people to get there. However, I do have to agree that having too much wealth in the hands of too few is a problem, but it wouldn't be fair or right, or productive, to restrict people from earning as much as they can. So what is the answer.

What about those who inherit significant wealth. Well, I think about my own children, but I wouldn't want to dump ridiculous wealth on any of them, but I would want them to have enough to be well established. I thought about Warren Buffet, who has often indicated that he won't give significant inheritance to his children. He is strongly in favor of the inheritance tax. I began to think about this. If there were some kind of limit on inheritance that would meet with Buffet's famous statement that "I want to give my kids just enough so that they would feel that they could do anything, but not so much that they would feel like doing nothing", but that provided that kind of limit for everyone, then that might provide a better distribution of wealth.

I often think of wealth in terms of the poverty level. And by poverty level, I mean the poverty level in the United States. If there was unlimited inheritance up to say, 500 times the poverty level, that should be enough to provide a great start for anyone. Those who then have way more than that, would have to look for additional heirs to distribute their wealth to. Beyond just an inheritance tax or limit, I would also apply it to gifts given before death. The total anyone could receive should be the same whether the received it before their benefactor's death or after. If donating to a trust, then the total number of full beneficiaries of that trust should be multiplied by the limit. Buffet's donation of over 30 billion to the Gates Foundation would be just fine in this instance, since the trust specifies everyone as beneficiaries. All assets should fall in this category, whether cash, stock, real estate, or anything else. Any assets not specified to an heir would then be liquidated and turned over to the government. By distributing wealth better, there would be less pooling and reduction in economic activity, and also result in greater opportunities as there would less plutocracy and fewer inherited power positions in big companies (think Walmart or Ford).

I would say that this would be one of the first requirements for the Good Government Initiative. It wouldn't work if there was a permanent royal or elite class. Distribute that wealth and get it back in circulation. That is what will benefit the nations and individuals.

May 14, 2010

The follies of globalization

The last couple of centuries have witnessed an ongoing march of a phenomenon that most people in business applaud, but which often has been fought against, protested, and accused of the worst of atrocities. I speak of the phenomenon of globalization. The economic practice and concept is the removal of barriers between national borders in order to facilitate the flow of goods, capital, services and labor, so that all parts of the world make specialized goods and compete in a global marketplace for these things. There is much debate over the benefits and ill effects of globalization, but perhaps the strongest effect is that no-one is immune.

For the poor of the earth, good times under globalization means that they have sweatshop type job opportunities and many chances to be exploited. For the richest of individuals, good times under globalization mean a great increase in wealth and expansion of power. For the bulk of us in the United States, good times under globalization means we have ever increasing options of cheap consumer goods to purchase to pad our consumption centered lives. Under bad times, globalization means much worse news for the poor, not much difference for the richest, and probable economic discomfort for those with a standard of living equivalent to the average Americans.

There is some mobility between groups, and globalization has generally had the effect of increased mobility for the highest and lowest performers from each group. However, for many, globalization means the loss of dreams and traditions. Especially for those engaged in the more traditional forms of business. Most of the small independent retail and service business are gone world wide. The more industrialized an place, the worse it is. Besides the obvious loss of quality and custom hand made goods and custom lunches at the local diners, there is significant loss of opportunity to build ones own future with your own hard work. Beyond that, and perhaps most tragic of all, is that now it is very difficult to be truly self sufficient as individuals and impossible as communities and towns. I applaud the global dissemination of technology and even culture, but at the cost of destroying any long term security, and often the freedoms that come with it, I have to conclude that unrestrained globalization isn't all that it is cracked up to be.

A while back, I applauded a move by Walmart to help restore some local viability into local markets, but the effort so far has been weak and insufficient to have much of an effect. I suggested at the time that they should try to get more of what they sell manufactured and produced locally. I recognize that some things will always have to be brought in from elsewhere. Wisconsin will never grow bananas or pineapples, but they can do a lot of other things. If the means for local economies to produce their goods locally were more prevalent, then perhaps all this social and economic upheaval that we call globalization might not be so bad.

May 13, 2010

K.I.S.S. the governement

I love our founding fathers. Not so much as individuals, but collectively. Sure, there are individual standouts, but this isn't about them, instead, it is that they looked at what they had for government, and said, we can do better than this. They acknowledged that people are people and while basically good, people are also basically flawed. They said, hey, we can create a system where each part of the whole works together to both strengthen the whole, and prevent any one part from becoming too strong and therefore out of balance with the other parts. The great compromise during the constitutional convention in 1787 had to do with small states and large states, but what it resulted in was dual sovereignty. Both the federal government and the state governments were sovereign, strong, and effective. The 17th amendment went a long way in subverting the interests and power of the states in our federal government, but considering the problems of the day, I can see why it was passed. What it in effect did was change the squabbling in the legislatures for power brokered senators. Instead of having special interests directly bribing the legislators, they now indirectly bribe and manipulate the populace.

I am a big fan of representative government. We live in a republic, not a democracy, and I am glad that we do. At the same time, republics have a tendency to experience corruption and bribery. There are a few things, however that seem to help that. One is the recall. Now, the most famous example of the recall is when California Governor Gray Davis was recalled and replaced with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unfortunately, this is a bad example of how recall should be done and used. Sure, Gray Davis was stupid for the errors he made, but it really isn't about him. Perhaps he should have been recalled, but the method should have been different and shouldn't have been such kangaroo court.

Ideally, recall should happen on a much more intimate level. Recalling a governor in California hardly qualifies as intimate. Secondly, recall should be automatically pick a slate of eligible candidates. More like a regular election where if the sitting politician is ousted, it is in favor of a specific other. As much as I don't like the system, the first second third preference ballot actually makes a lot of sense here. One of the major problems with initiating a recall, is that you have to direct it at the general populace. The legislature should have the option, but there need to be others who can also initiate it, such as a majority of city councils or county commissions, or something like that. The problem with that is that our governments are not set up hierarchically. They overlap and are a hodgepodge of authorities, who most people really don't care about, since they don't seem to matter anyway. Perhaps the key is making those positions matter more.

Another major problem with politics today is also related to the separation of the governed from the governing. Specifically, bureaucracy. When you have some kind of interaction with a government authority, how often do you know that person from elsewhere? Almost never. It is impersonal, it is obscure, it is inefficient, and often, it is downright mean. Even with police today, too often, we don't know who is serving us. They are complete strangers. Some time ago, there was a notion of a beat. An officer had a specific area he served and where he knew the people and what went on. If there was someone strange in his beat, he made it is business to find out what was going on. Now a days, there are very few beat cops, and the beats are so large that there is no way that they could get to know the people and what is going on. A stranger looks just like everyone else, cause everyone is a stranger to them. Instead, we have tons of traffic cops. They are focused on catching everyone so they can give them a ticket. Then, the department can get more money. Their performance is based on how many tickets they write. What an awful and ridiculous notion. Any other government departments are just as bad if not worse, and magnified exponentially at the federal level.

We need to apply the K.I.S.S. principle here. The solution is to get the services, and the service providers, back close to the people, and to make them accountable to the people. And not just the people, but at a level where there are personal relationships. With personal relationships involved, you know people better, you know how they think and how they live. If all government service providers and representatives served a small enough group of individuals that they knew them personally, and could be replaced by them if they screwed up too badly, I think things would change quickly. I have designed a solution, that until now, really hasn't had name. I think I will call it the Good Government Initiative. I will begin detailing it in the weeks and months to come. Most of my posts will still be on other things like technology and innovation. Still, since this is something that affects all of us, perhaps this is innovation that needs the most attention.

May 11, 2010

Where politics and technology intersect.

Yesterday, someone sent me a link to a video regarding a supreme court case relating to business process patents and by extension, software patents. I have a pretty slow connection right now, so when I watch a long video, I usually get it started, and then pause it to let the rest download. While I was waiting for it to download, I read the comments on the video to get a feel what others had to say about it. That left me with almost a feeling of dread before I even viewed the email. The problem is that too many of these process patents are locking up common sense approaches to doing business or of programming.

As both a business entrepreneur and a software programmer, this issue affects me. I also have the background of having been an assistant patent librarian for a patent repository library (a while before everything went web based) and helped patent attorneys and inventors search for patents and make sure they had all the information for protecting their own intellectual property. I believe that patents were a major factor in helping the United States of America become the leader of technology world wide and really were one of the keys of the industrial and post - industrial revolutions. However, I can also see how the system must be very diligent so that it isn't abused so as to stifle innovation instead of encourage it.

For my current situation, I have a fair number of innovations (that I am not sharing on here) that I am working on, that since they do things that have never been done before, are, in my opinion, very patentable. At least, they are under the current software patent regulations and tests. At the same time, I don't want patent trolls keeping me from creating new innovations by locking up basic functions of programming. So, in all my huff and puff prior to watching the video, I was concerned that what the comments were saying is that the court had given even more blank slate to the patent trolls, which I would view as bad for the industry, and for the economy.

Well, then I watched the video. And I was like... "and so..... what was decided?" Well, after some searching, I found that while the arguments for the case were last year, the decision is not expected until sometime this June. From some of the transcripts of the arguments, I have to conclude that the Justices are not as clueless as many people like to pretend they are. Then again, I have heard comments from Justices before than seem to go completely against the decisions they write, so, take that conclusion with a pound or two of salt, and maybe some indigestion medicine. Anyway, my thoughts are, why is everybody in such a huff, if the decision hasn't even been released yet. 

Then, something else happened. I read that Obama hates technology, and went, huh, I thought he was "Mr. Technology" during the election. Then, I read from InfoWorld that the whole thing was a joke. Ok, I have to admit that I am not an Obama fan. I think he has way too many control freak fascist tendencies, even worse than Bush, but perhaps about as bad as Cheney. The hubbub on this one is that people took snippets of an address he gave and missed that they were part of a joke. Not only did they not get the punchline, they never even knew there was a punchline.

Now, it is just too bad that there is sooo much venom out there that people jump to attack without know why they are jumping. Like most jokes, a good part of the humor worked because of the true parts of the joke, like the parts about media and how "some of which don't always rank that high on the truth meter" and "some of the craziest claims can quickly claim traction". Ok, they Obama hates technology headline should have made people go, "wait a minute" this doesn't sound like it is fully founded in reality. Need to get the whole story.

I suppose getting the whole story is too time consuming, especially when seconds count in being the first to break a story. I know we aren't going to get all cyber-journalists and bloggers to be more responsible, but perhaps there is a way that we can leverage the strengths of the internet to fix the problem and create better news sources at the same time. If there was a blog/cybernews integrator, it would still give credit for breaking stories, but if it allowed add-ons by other journalists who provide "the rest of the story" or additional details, then the truth would eventually come out in a single source for each story that is out there. At the same time, those who have an axe to grind could post as additional details, but the rants and slants could quickly be voted as such and relegated to comments and rants, and leave the real additional details in the body of the page, each with their respective authors getting their due. We could call it associated bloggers or something like that.

May 6, 2010


Bootstrapping (in Business) is to start a business without external help or capital. The hard thing about bootstrapping is that there are a whole bunch of business processes and areas of expertise that have to be known and executed correctly. Now, often when someone is talking about bootstrapping a startup, they have some minimal and often much more significant financial resources, and they are able to outsource a whole bunch of those business processes and just pay for them. What happens if a startup doesn't have the funds to pay for such services. Well, they better be good at accounting, and have a thorough understanding of legalese, and be technologically savvy, and know hr policies, oh, and not just regular accounting, they also need to know enough about merchant accounts and banking to be able to make sure they are getting paid. They need to be an expert at taxes, which while most people think that means accounting, there is a whole separate class of accountants that deal with taxes.

My personal experience with bootstrapping wasn't quite that bad, but close. We got a pretty big contract right out of the gate which paid for things like an accountant/tax professional, got some legal advice on trade, and had enough cash that when our merchant account got messy, we were able to make it through that without too much problem. We had the technology understanding, so we were able to get around that. They problem was, we wanted to do far more than what we could afford. We did contract work for other companies with the hope that it would pay enough for us to work on our own projects. Well, being our first attempt at running our own business, we didn't execute it flawlessly or even close. We did survive being stiffed $40,000 by a client, and were able to continue operations for 2 years until the economy collapsed and most of our clients went with it (for some reason, we had a lot of mortgage and real estate clients at that time).

Since then, I have reverted to the garage band version of business. I am developing a big software system in my spare time with two partners, but we have no business at this point, as we have no product to sell. We have no cash, and all our work is done on our personally owned machines. We would love to try to venture a small trial balloon offering to see what kind of response we would get, but that would constitute conducting business, which would mean bank accounts, business licenses, accountants, lawyers, taxes, and so forth. I think back to the days of yore when you built something or had something or provided some service, and you just went about doing business. Sure, the tax man would want his share, so some simple accounting would be needed to track what you did so you could pay your share of taxes, but that would be the end of things. I know there are some who still try to do it that way today. The problem is that complying with the law and regulations has become more complex than most people can manage unless that is all they focus on.

It shouldn't have be like that. We need some kind of established system that in a very cost effective way, provides all these services so that a businessman/bootstrapper could focus on what they are doing. Intuit provides a lot of those services, and even pretends to integrate them, but it really doesn't meet the needs. They, or their competitors, need to provide a complete small business we take care of your headaches so you can take care of business package. No nickle and dime marketing, just a single upfront, complete, take my headaches away small business startup solutions package. Yeah, I know, each small business has different needs, so they can offer an a-la-carte service selector, but when all is said and done, they take care of the headaches. They business registrations, the tax payments, the payroll, the hr, etc, etc, etc. Yeah you will need to sign off on things, but they do all the prep work. Much of it could be automated, and the rest could reach into a community of providers that work from a standardized set of requirements. And, I should be able to get price without committing to the purchase, just in case I am not ready to pull that trigger yet.


So, you may have noticed, I haven't posted in about two weeks. I have been out and about the country. I realize I missed a wonderful opportunity to add my voice to the chorus of others throwing in their commentary on the HP-Palm connection. And really, I hope HP does something wonderful. I am not getting my hopes up, not because I don't like HP. This post is being written on an HP laptop. I love my laptop. The problem is that HP rarely does anything really innovative or revolutionary. They do a great job adding polish to existing innovations. They make good quality products. Their support could use some help, but most companies need this as well. Many of the things HP does, it does really well.

What it doesn't do well, or at least not very often, is create innovative and revolutionary products and break ground where others haven't. Palm's WebOS is a great piece of programming, but it doesn't go far enough, and I doubt that HP will have the self restraint to let go of control and let it become what it needs to be. In case they missed it, they should check out my post on a Smart Phone Dream Machine.