Five new lessons learned about tying shoes

The truth is that even this most basic of life skills can be improved in its teaching and executing, and you have to be open to these things even after thirty years of doing it the old and inefficient way.

I had one hell of a time learning how to do tie my shoes when I was five. My father even took an old Florsheim dress shoe and painted each part a bright color to teach the vocabulary of the shoe (tongue, sole, heel) because I was not getting any of it. The shoe was awesome: more colorful than a clown shoe and utterly ridiculous because it was a dress shoe.

But it didn't matter: I just could not get the knot right long after my younger brother aced it. My sister, who was about 1 at the time, learned before me, according to the ever more exaggerated family myths. Like many of my troubles as a kid, the parents chalked this up to being my fault (lazy, uncooperative, etc.) rather than something beyond my control. My parents were pissed and I felt like a worthless idiot.

It turns out that there are at least 17 different ways to tie your shoes. I found this site by googling 'tying a shoe' and choosing the first site it returned. Lesson #1: check the internet on how to improve on the most mundane tasks. It will prevent you from stumbling along in frustration due to incomplete information and outdated methods. And frustrating others trying to learn your ancient ways. Unfortunately, I learned this only when writing this blog post.

It turns out that many of us have been working with a substandard shoelace knot, at least for beginners. There are two stages to tying the knot: the starting knot and the loop knot. With the standard starting knot, you have to plant a finger on the knot to hold it tight while you do the loop knot. Lesson #2: use a double starting knot instead. You will have both hands free to tie and twist the loops. Go ahead, try it.

It worked, huh? My wife learned this from a coworker whose child was taught this in preschool years ago. Lesson #3: talk to others. Like many innovations, this is simple, effective, but does not appear to have spread very far, in part because who shares shoe-tying information? It happened only because my wife brought it up when discussing the travails of teaching my son to tie his shoes. Even still, I don't expect many to try this, because tying shoes is an everyday task, and people are used to the inefficient method, some will no doubt consider this weird.

Speaking of weird, when I was trying to teach my son, my wife watched closely and pronounced that I was doing it wrong - something about which loop was first, or which way to circle the loop. We realized that righties and lefties do the loop knot differently. Which would make it very difficult for a lefty to teach a righty or vice versa. My father and my son are both righties, and I am a lefty. Lesson #4: find the right teacher.

Lesson #5: Subtle structural issues are often the culprit for what are mistaken as a child's behavior problem. In my case, it was being left-handed. This same lesson went unlearned in many other episodes with me.

The New York Times is not worth paying for

The journalism industry is grinding its way through a nasty transition, mostly because the revenue side has fallen apart. Newspapers traditionally have made their money off of ads, with the reader subscriptions often just to support delivery services or as a minimal revenue source. (This is how 'free' print newspapers and broadcast TV can be 'free': they are so chock full of paid ads.)

But the ads have disappeared as advertisers have moved to radio, TV, the internet and even video games. The internet has made newspapers as a delivery channel exceedingly inferior. The only way for them to survive is as websites. But the ad revenue on websites has taken a huge hit because of the recession and because advertisers are figuring out that ads are easy to ignore on the web.

To save itself financially, the New York Times will charge readers for access to its content. It did this with disastrous results half a decade ago, but again, it feels like it has no choice. Back then, I was one of those who paid for TimeSelect. But the times have changed.

First, there are plenty of other free news sources that seemed to have found a working business model: Huffington Post and Politico come to mind. I think it is because they don't have the expenses of a local newspaper (local, state, regional, etc.). In the global environment for global news, the NYT just doesn't compare to free sources, RSS feeds, etc.

Second, the quality of news has sunk to a point where it is not worth paying for. Journalists have an exceedingly high opinion of themselves that is not based on how well they do their jobs, but simply based on their role in society as 'the press.' This has clearly been the case at the New York Times, with its deplorable reporting about WMD in Iraq, it's phoned in, stenographic political reporting, etc. Money is not draining out of journalism solely because of the internet, but because of low quality.

Yes, if this sounds a bit like the hubris of bankers who expect to be paid because they are bankers, not because they are good at what they do, bingo. The difference is that bankers, so far, have an excellent business model. Oh, and the bankers don't get any of my money either, except for the one bank that bought my mortgage, which I had no choice over.

What should the Times do instead, you ask, you snarky reader? Half the Op-ed columnists are big enough properties in their own right that they could make it as media properties, with speaking fees and book royalties allowing them to 'blog' to readers for free. Tom Friedman, Nick Kristof, Paul Krugman and David Brooks would probably be fine. Frank Rich, Gail Collins, Ross Douhat, Bob Hebert and Maureen Dowd probably don't have the media presence to pull it off. As for the NYT itself, well, like GM, it is probably headed for a slow death regardless of what it does. And it will do so without my financial support.

It's not about connecting dots, it's about management and leadership

It's become apparent that the media has jumped all over this 'spy agencies didn't connect the dots' meme about the Xmas Detroit flight bomber. They act shocked, shocked that this has happened. Wasn't this the whole problem with 9/11 that was fixed with the new security procedures, etc.?

No, actually the unconnected dots story is old and seems immune to modern attempts to correct it. And it is not just a national security story. And it is not about connecting the dots. The truth is that this is a failure of management and leadership, not analysis and data collection. See if you analysts out there can figure out the pattern here:

1986: The space shuttle Challenger explodes supposedly because no one connected the dots on the O-ring and freezing temperatures. NASA's investigation actually points the blame finger at how decisions are made and problems with management sacrificing safety for keeping to the launch schedule.

1999: The dot-com bubble causes the stock market to skyrocket and then tank despite data showing irrational exuberance. People lament the lack of connecting the dots by the Fed, but the problem was that Greenspan didn't take action by raising interest rates and call for more regulation in lending.

2001: 9/11 happens because no one connected the dots on al Qaeda plots. The country solemnly concludes that it wasn't a problem in collecting the information, or analyzing it, but on acting on it. Ditto for Enron, MCI, etc.

2003: The shuttle Columbia explodes because no one 'connected the dots' on damage to the heat shield. But, hint hint, the investigation concludes that management failed to act, not that the analysis was lacking.

2003: We go to war in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction, even though all of the reliable analysis points to there being none. Attempts to blame the analysis fall on deaf ears when it becomes clear that management dismissed the analysis before it was even started.

2008: The housing market bubble pops, taking the stock market bubble down with it. If only the Fed, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the rest of the government connected the dots, right? It turns out that all of the data was collected, the analysis was done, but that decision-makers and action takers chose to ignore it because they wanted to let the good times roll.

Spring 2009: Mexican authorities repeatedly and desperately alert the World Health Organization about an outbreak of a new flu. WHO drops the ball and does not follow its own procedures for dealing with it, and the delay in their response allows a global pandemic to spring forth, killing thousands.

Xmas 2009: An almost plane bombing happens not because the analysis was not done, but because at each step, the decision makers did not act when their own procedures told them to, starting from our embassy in Nigeria, to the NSA intel guys who knew about Nigerian terrorists training in Yemen, to the DHS people who are supposed to flag people who pay for one-way tickets with cash and don't check luggage. Any one of these pieces of intel was enough to blow the whistle, revoke the visa, do the extra search, etc. and block the guy from boarding the plane. But no one pulled the trigger. Why? They didn't think their piece of information was serious enough or sufficient even though all known procedures and common sense says it was. That is a decision-making failure, not an analytical one. And it happened about a half dozen times in this one case alone.

Why does this keep happening? The answer is pretty straightforward, if you connect the dots.

A) Collecting data is much easier than analyzing it. We are really good at collecting data.

B) Analysis is not all that hard either. In all of these cases, the analysis was done and the conclusions were straightforward enough that a kid in elementary school would know what to take away. (Heat shield probably busted: don't reenter atmosphere!) But the analysis (and analysts) are easy scapegoats for the real problem, which is that...

C) The authorities dismiss the analysis because they don't wanna do what it calls them to do. Acting on the analysis requires decision-makers who are conditioned/trained/promoted to move incrementally, cautiously and with consensus to do something drastic, do it quickly and piss a lot of people off. It's just more convenient for them to dismiss the analysis and justify their dismissal under the guise of prudence, pragmatism, etc. And as a result, the disaster happens.

Solution: we need decision-makers who will act when needed, who don't pass the buck or shy away from their responsibility. There is no procedural reform, no mild incentive changes or organizational reshuffling that will make it happen. This is where the nitty gritty of leadership comes in. Executives need a line of Captain Kirks, David Farraguts and George S. Pattons who will act swiftly and they need to support them so they can carry out their whistle-blowing capability. Lives are on the line.

For you, dear reader, a bonus example where you get to play the manager, with your own money:

2010: the stock market is likely overvalued. Here's some analysis in the NYT that is the equivalent of announcing that a 20% downturn is due, according to PE ratios. You now have the data and the analysis. What will you do? If the analysis is right (and I am not saying that it is) and you take that 20% hit in your stocks' value, then you have little to complain about when others take the same cautious route.