Monday, September 25, 2006

Corporate "happy talk"

The following observations aren't mine (wish I could articulate as well as this!) - but have been harvested from somewhere in the gapingvoid site ( I've reproduced (and slightly tweaked) them here because they sum up how I feel about most VC funded American Software Corporations that I've had experience of - not that I think these are specifically American or indeed software corporation traits, but in my experience that particular combination seem to bring these characteristics out oh so well.

  • Most companies ignore their ability to deliver genuine knowledge and value, opting instead to crank out sterile happytalk that insults the intelligence of markets that are becoming literally too smart to buy it.

  • Most corporations only know how to talk in the soothing, humourless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as candidly as they do.

  • Companies that speak in the language of the pitch, the dog-and-pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone.

  • Companies that assume online markets are the same markets that used to watch their ads on television are kidding themselves.

  • Most marketing programs are based on the fear that the market might see what's really going on inside the company.

Over the years I have worked for several such organisations and all have had all of these annoyances (and many more), interestingly most have been really financially successful (what does that say about their markets?) These days I'm very glad to be out of "sterile happy talk" hell, I do however feel slightly hypocritical, the money I made from these essentially "stupid" companies has enabled me to recently create and fund my own software company, so, I get the chance to do it "my way"; let's hope I don't end up eating my own words, we shall see.

Should all teachers be computer literate?

I'm not sure what "computer literate" really means, I guess it could be anything from being able to use Windows, compose email, build spreadsheets to being able to understand basic programming. However I do know that many people out there (including teachers) don't make it to the first rung of the ladder when it comes to using and deriving value from the 20th centuries most prolific invention. Clearly people can be good teachers and not know a thing about computers, but it got me thinking; should all teachers be required to learn how to operate and interact with computers or, if their primary subject/specialization is not technology, then is it OK not to bother?

Whether you are "into" technology (like me) or not, its fairly obvious that in this country (i.e. UK/Europe) its almost inconceivable that someone would live their lives without interacting with a computer at some point (probably every day!); therefore, love them or loath them they have become an integral component of everyday life as much as cars, trains, books, houses, food, TV, working or football etc. It would be inconceivable to me that the topics in this list would not be discussed at school, how then can a teacher discuss/teach computers and their use if he or she is not at least computer literate to some basic level?

I know several people who are computer illiterate, there’s nothing wrong with them, they are intelligent people but I often wonder why? Is it that they don't care, don't understand, or don’t want to learn? Maybe the information technology revolution has happened so quickly that some people simply can't adapt that fast, or perhaps that some people are simply so disinterested in technology generally that the idea there is something of value there doesn't even cross their minds? I find these explanations a little hard to swallow, I just need to look at mobile phone adoption; in the space of 5 years practically everyone from 6 to 60 now has one and from a cursory glance around any public place it would seem that these complex little devices (i.e. computers) are now as essential as shoes, what's the difference?

So, why are PCs so difficult for some people to get to grips with; on reflection I think it's a problem of abstraction. Of all the people I know that do or don't work or play with technology those that seem to have the biggest problem are those that find it most difficult to work with metaphors, i.e. not "actual" things but representations of actual things; a fundamental element of "understanding" computers (or the software that people interact with) is to realize that they offer up a "dumb" virtual representation of the real world and not the real world itself - armed with this insight it is a short hop to understanding that the metaphors used are themselves limited or constrained by the creator of the software, i.e. they don't work 100% the same way as the real world. People who have trouble with metaphors generally seem to "expect" the computer to obey all the rules of the real world, i.e. "understand" and are a lost when this does not happen. Also, in my limited experience, I often find that the lack of ability to grasp abstraction often goes with a lack of attention span “I’m far too busy to fiddle around with computers”. Clearly, to understand the constraints of the metaphors used by a particular piece of software (i.e. Windows, Excel, Linux or whatever), a certain amount of engagement and learning investment is necessary, a lot of people aren't prepared to make that investment and just pick up their mobile phone and ask someone instead. I guess that's the thing with phones - no metaphor to learn (apart from the menu system maybe!), just dial and speak; instant gratification.

Now, getting back to teachers, I would assume that one of the key abilities that teachers *should* be giving to kids is the ability to think in the abstract (surely that's the basis of maths and English?), couple this with an ability to work with metaphors and you should IMO have a strong basis for using computers successfully - are teachers that claim *not* to be computer literate simply running away from their lack of ability to deal with abstraction?. Interestingly most kids I know don't have a problem with this stuff anyway, I think it’s because their understanding of the "real world" and its rules is limited by their experience to the extent that they don't have a problem with metaphors and simply "accept" new rules of interaction willingly without question. Anyway, my conclusion is that I still think any teacher should be able to address this basic need.

I wonder if some people had the same problems as this when writing was first invented or the internal combustion engine or even indoor toilets; were some teachers then still relieving themselves in the woods whilst the children learnt to flush?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

School Dinners - Tasting Notes

These notes are from a wine tasting held at my son's school on Friday 24th September 2006 (see how not to sell wine) - the vendor who hosted the tasting was selling all of the wines tasted and his prices are noted along with my thoughts and comments on the wines (scores using the "Parker" 50-100 point scale).

Vergelegen, Sauvignon Blanc, Stellenbosch, 2005, RSA £8.50 - Typical gooseberries, cut-grass kind of aromas, some cream; very dry in the mouth with some tropical fruits, reasonable finish. Reminded me of a well made NZ SB; good value for money but not something to go out of your way for. I noticed that this can be bought in Majestic for slightly less (86).

Domaine Fichet, Macon Villages, Terroir de Bergy, 2005 £7.50 - No appreciable nose to speak of, in the mouth I got resin and oak, clearly seen a lot of oak, not too bad some chardonnay fruit in there if you persist - average (84).

Errazuriz, Wild fermented Chardonnay, Chile, 2005 £9.95 - More to my taste, more Burgundian IMO, minerals with some oak, slight nose of burn rubber but not in a bad way, slightly sweet on the finish with good balance, would be happy to slurp this with the right food etc. (88)

Anekena, Ona White, Rapel Valley, Chile 2005 £8.95 - Nice chardonnay, not a huge nose some apple/melon, well balanced nice mouthfeel, some quince and slightly tropical fruits on the finish - not outstanding but a good everyday glugger (87)

Jean-Luc Mader, Gewurztraminer, 2004 £8.95 - Nice to see this in such a line up; typical GWZ, rose petals, turkish delight, good weight not too sweet nice balance and a nice finish, made a nice change to Chardonnay but I fear not liked that much by most people. Punching above it's weight I thought - but then I may have been influenced by the contrast more than the actual wine? (89)

Chofflet-Valdenaire, Givry, 1er Cru, Clos de Choue, 2003 £14.50 - Nice PN nose, cherry, animal, earth, quite high acidity but not overly intrusive, fairly light and short but pleasent enough, would be nice with food IMO (88)

Chateau les Graviers de la Brandille, Bordeaux Superior, 2003 £6.75 - Cheap Bordeaux from the incredibly hot 2003 vintage, light weight nose but got some fruit, reasonable for the price I suppose but nothing special - needs food (84)

Vicien, Malbec Reserve, Catamarca, Argentina, 2004 £6.95 - I quite like this varietal when done well, this one was reasonable, mulberry, dark fruits, earthy, quite tannic but not a strong finish, I would think this is made to be drunk straight away (86)

Domaine du Meteore, Faugeres, Les Orionides, 2005 £7.75 - Non-descript nose, got some fruit but hard to pin down, easier to pick out the Syrah and Mouvedre in the mouth, fairly typical of the L&R reds being produced now, nice, crowd pleasing and good value compared with some of the more pricey versions of this made in the S. Rhone, CNDP etc. would be nice with spagboll; (86)

Matetic, Corralillo Merlot-Malbec, San Antonio, Chile, 2003 £9.75 - Expensive for a Chilean red but fairly evident why on the nose, blockbuster hit of cassis, smoke, wood, black fruits very appealing, not so big in the mouth though quite tannic (probably improve with a few years on it), Merlot very dominant; seemed to be the most popular choice for dinner among the punters which was understandable it was certainly the most memorable wine from an "impact" point of view (88)

Kloovenburg, Shiraz, RSA, 2004 £10.75 - Again, expensive for an RSA red, not really tried many Rhone varietals from South Africa, some good ones about by all accounts but I didn't feel this was one of them, some spice on the nose but uninspiring in the mouth, quite restrained, balanced but not much on the finish, may improve but probably some better wines to be had at this price point from the N. Rhone (85)

For dinner I bought a bottle of the Vergelegen SB as we had a Thai chicken with rice - reasonable match, the wine held it's own against the spices of the dish (not that spicy). I'm tempted to make a joke about school dinners at this point, but (plastic seating aside) it was actually OK.

How not to sell wine

I attended a wine tasting organized by a local merchant on Friday (24th) unusually the venue was my sons school, apparently this is done a few times a year, this one was our first. I guess it made sense, if you can afford the school fees they figure that you'll probably be a wine drinker and probably have disposable income to blow on a case or two of vino, however I think if most of the attendees were honest they turned up to chat to other parents and teachers and to neck as much free plonk as possible (nothing wrong with that I suppose).

Being a bit of a wine-geek, I've been to a fair few commercial tastings before and whilst I wasn't expecting a "proper" tasting event per se but I think this hit a new low for me in terms of "commercial indifference" in what I would have said was a "target rich" environment. Nothing wrong with the wines, a reasonable selection 5-15 quid, clearly pitched at the casual/weekend drinker who leans towards the more "international" fruit-driven styles (supermarket stuff); and a wide selection (20 or so) were on offer, representing most of the main varietals you would find most people familiar with.

My main frustration was simply the lack of effort applied, the vendor simply pitched up put the bottles out on a long table and shouted "help yourself"; predictably most punters simply made a b-line for something familiar and filled up their glasses. Most people I spoke to were at a loss to describe or identify what it was they were drinking and only tried 3 or 4 out of the 20 on offer. I did try and speak to the guy running the event but he wasn't really up for a chat, however he did point out the empty table with a pile of order forms on it should I "find" something I liked - I didn't feel inclined to buy anything.

Another annoyance was the lack of thought that had gone into the wine placement, it was all laid out on one single table (20 bottles) even though there were plenty of other empty tables available, this lead to an almost impenetrable wall of punters just standing there right in front of the table drinking and not moving, I reckon that prevented me from tasting at least 4 or 5 of the wines as we ran out of time (daft!). The vendor did arrive late and there didn't seem to be a lot of helpers there so I can kind of understand the arrangement but even so, splitting them between red and white would have doubled throughput (and potential sales) IMO.

Clearly people do what they want to do and there's nothing wrong with that, but you would have thought that if this vendor actually wanted to flog some wine a better approach would have been to "talk" about each wine, guide people through the selection, point out the varietals, point out the producers, talk them up etc. I don't think much was sold, however you had to buy a bottle for dinner, I guess that's where they recouped some of their outlay although, with travel, time and probably a small skim from the school, I can't see how money could be made on the deal?

Anyway, not a bad evening from a social point of view, didn't win anything in the raffle but did speak to my son's new teacher for the first time and that conversation provoked a few thoughts (more on that later), mostly I drank more wine than I paid for (which is always a bonus!) - tasting notes to follow.