How do you learn?

Just read two interesting articles on learning. They both talk about the psychology behind curiosity (or the lack thereof) and how we learn from life experience. The first is a story from Ramit about learning to cut an onion. The second is a discussion about curiosity from a psychological viewpoint (masquerading as a discussion on computer languages).
I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen people do exactly what Ramit talks about. I think the most obvious examples to me have had to do with project planning. So many people in the IT field end up doing planning without any sort of education. They get asked to estimate tasks or labor, and they just go off and (basically) guess. Yet, no matter how many times their estimates are wildly off, few of them even realize how bad they are at planning, let alone try to improve their skills.
I was recently involved in estimating work for a small piece of a project. One of the veterans of the project shot from the hip and estimated 480 hours. But, after I led the team through creating a task schedule and work estimate using a project planning tool, we came up with 840 hours. If we had used the veteran’s estimate, we would have overspent our labor budget by 57%! Yet he characterized the two estimates as being “very close together” and was satisfied that our team estimate validated what he had originially told management.
This is a scenario I see replayed time and again – leading many projects into over-budget conditions that would have been foreseen if people could just ask instead of guess!

Blue Man Group

Cindy and I saw Blue Man Group at the Charles Playhouse in Boston today. I thought it was going to be a larger show — it was only 3 Blue Men. But it was awesome. I laughed and smiled so much my face hurt by the end of the show.
If you haven’t seen Blue Man Group, I highly recommend it. They do a great job involving the audience. If you’re not in a great mood afterwards, you really need to get some professional help.

Ford Edge

As a full-time traveler, rental cars are a fact of life. There’s always an element of luck in getting a good car when you rent. This last time around, I managed to get a Ford Edge — Ford’s new SUV. While I’m not a fan of domestic cars, I’d heard that they were starting to catch the Japanese in quality. The Edge could be an example of that. I’m reserving final judgement, but so far it seems a nice car. Very roomy, nice set of power features, including memory seats. Power could be better, but rental agencies are notorious for getting the low-priced models, so Ford may have a higher power version.

Water boarding and/or Torture

The recent Congressional hearings for the candidate Attorney General has left me more disappointed than usual in our political process. For starters, the current debates are nothing more than a semantic argument. The real issue is the actions of the interrogators, not the definition of the word torture. Interrogation techniques cover a whole spectrum of coercion — ranging from asking politely to mutilation and fatal abuse. The difficulty in dealing with this spectrum is that there isn’t a clear line between “acceptable” and “unacceptable”.
Congress seems more concerned with semantic games around the word “torture” than stopping the behavior itself. We’re seeing the natural evolution of the culture that gave us Bill Clinton pondering the meaning of the word “is”, instead of admitting he had an affair and telling the world to butt out of his business.
The embarrassing truth is that Congress makes the laws, not the Attorney General. If something needs to be declared illegal, Congress itself has that power! If Congress is truly concerned about water boarding, they don’t need to find an Attorney General to fix it for them; they need to pass a law to outlaw it. The fact that they haven’t is a testament to their investment of politics above the moral ideals of our society.
It’s informative to consider the role of certain of our government agencies and the positions they’ve taken on the issue of water boarding. The military is the de facto agency responsible for using coercion upon our enemies. Military intelligence operations are aimed at operationally useful information.
Civilian intelligence agencies are aimed at developing objective information to support decision making by the executive branch. However, our intelligence agencies are increasingly influenced by political forces.
Military intelligence has long outlawed water boarding. However, the civilian agencies that are more susceptible to political influence apparently feel they can get results from a technique that the military abandoned long ago.
The White House and their supporters also feel that the public debate should be silenced to prevent giving our enemy any information about techniques. This argument ignores the corrosive effects of such secrecy on democracy. The government must be controlled by the will of the people. When secrecy becomes as systemic as Bush desires, the public is no longer informed well enough to manage government.
The enemy’s propaganda already portrays us as cruel and immoral; actually behaving cruelly does nothing but lend them credibility. This is a fundamental aspect of the conflict. This is billed as a “War on Terror”, but this war does not fit the traditional sense of war. In the traditional sense of war, the military is capable of winning. But the “War on Terror”, much like the wars on drugs or poverty, cannot be won militarily.
This new conflict is fundamentally a conflict of culture and values. As such, anything short of genocide will not resolve this conflict by force. In a conflict of values, one of the conditions for victory is to maintain the values of your culture. The steady erosion of personal liberty and human rights is effectively defeating us in this conflict.
The unilateral nature of the Bush administration is also self-defeating. In this conflict the principle victory condition is to make cultural allies of those who oppose us. By acting unilaterally, we alienate our existing allies and reduce our influence with countries like Saudi Arabia which are not fully aligned with us. It is precisely countries such as Saudi Arabia that we must transition into full fledged cultural allies, not just allies of convenience.