The Competency Trap and Xerox

Farewell, my lovely. A Xerox copier from the 1960s, now at the Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

Xerox, a giant of my generation (its name had become a verb) seems to be breathing its last, as it is acquired by Fujifilm (story in today’s NYTimes).

“How Xerox fell so far is a case study in what management experts call the “competency trap” — an organization becomes so good at one thing, it can’t learn to do anything new.”

Somewhat undercutting this thesis, the writer mentions that Xerox did try to do a bunch of different things as the environment changed, just not all that successfully. Still the later point, made by a comparison with Apple, is that experience can actually inhibit certain kinds of innovation.

To wit: Xerox famously did pioneering work on computer interfaces, the mouse, and other technology well before the personal computer revolution. A young Steve Jobs visited Xerox Park in Palo Alto, a story that is now one of the foundational bed-time stories for Silicon Valley, and saw some of this technology, which later made into his products.

The Times piece concludes,

Over the years, Apple has had its own ups and downs. But whenever Mr. Jobs became convinced that something new was afoot, he moved forcefully and refocused the company. He did not fall into the competency trap, and today Apple is the most valuable corporation in the world.

Jobs was all kinds of things no doubt, but just yesterday I read this bit from a memoir of working with him, tweeted by Bethany Bongiorno, formerly an engineering director at Apple.

At one point Steve wanted to turn UIKit elements orange. Not just any orange, he wanted a particular orange from the button on a certain old Sony remote. We got a bunch of remotes from Sony with orange buttons to try and find the right one. in the end, Steve hated it.

That’s sure not the competency trap, what it is exactly probably couldn’t be summed up in a management concept, but it does hint at the pure wildness and level of detail the late CEO of the world’s most valuable tech company engaged with.


Arts Tech: Virtual Maria Callas

In the operatic edition of “news of the weird” –a surprisingly hefty category–the latest entry is Maria Callas, in 3D on the stage of New York’s Rose Theater. Anthony Tomassini was there for the preview for the opening of the “tour”:

Like many things today, the promotional language from the company behind it, Base Hologram, seems to be pulled from a sci-fi novel, “La Divina lives, breathes, sings and captivates in her astonishing return to the stage.” Since Callas died in 1977, her return really would be astonishing. What we have instead, wondrous in a different way, is a 3-D hologram of the revered soprano, performing with a live orchestra (a gig that I suspect gave pause to the even the hungriest of NYC freelancers). “Callas sings” some well-known arias, from Carmen, Lady Macbeth, and the like–with audio mined from her numerous recordings, already an object of obsession by fanatics,  and what I guess is a computer recreation of her body based on the more limited film and video legacy.  As Tony points out, we don’t have a single full length opera on film of her.

Okay, I do get the fascination with her, and with Base’s other ectoplasmic excretion, Roy Orbison “Interactive Roy Orbison to Embark on World Tour.” I have found that opera lovers refer to hearing Callas live with the same awe that the others diners at the Last Supper must have lorded it over their lessers who weren’t in the room. Any opera unfortunate, such as me, who is prepared to forthrightly admit that he didn’t hear Callas, and even finds some grounds for criticism of her recorded performances, will be met with an impossible to counter “you had to be there” even from people who quite possibly weren’t there–never hearing the notoriously temperamental and cancellation prone singer in the flesh.

So, given that she has already moved into a virtual fantasy object phase, is a holographic tour anything to get agitated about? Is truthfully saying you saw the fake Callas, instead of falsely claiming to have seen the real one, such a big gap? And the reports of the technology, which apparently even lets her banter with the audience and conductor, fascinates me. (Is the hologram directed in real time by somebody ‘playing Maria?’ How? is AI involved? Just how spontaneous can it be: Does holographic Maria storm off the stage if she gets angry? What happens if somebody asks her to sing “Memories” from Cats? Can the audience demand that Roy Orbison come out and join her for a duet?  She never recorded Only the Lonely, nor he The Barber of Seville, but they might bring it off…

So many questions, and for all my quibbles I might well go if the show comes to DC. Probably would play Anthem.

Still, I have one more point, which Tony adumbrates, and which I would underline more strongly. Opera, already a backwards looking art, is nonetheless a live, and acoustic art form. That is, you connect because a singer making an un-amplified sound, one you are hearing as is.  Being there. The singer’s voice, your ears. Nothing but natural air pressures getting from one to the other.

There is so little acoustic anything today in the performing arts: mics are the norm from Broadway, to high school theater, and I hold no brief against them, just how things are done now, and the art form survives.  Opera, and in particular, vocal recitals, it seems to me present a more challenging case–opera may seem a particularly artificial art form, but there is an argument to be made that it is at the same time a very authentic one. What you are hearing is what the singer really sounds like. Not remastered, no engineering jiggery-pokery, no edits to create the perfect version.

If the whole point is being in the room with the source of that voice, virtual Maria gives you a lot, the image, the orchestra, the format, except the actual voice.  What’s more Avatar Maria likely looks radiant and sounds ideal, yet was remarkable about her, is what is remarkable about any opera singer or any live performance, what happens live, her voice and in that moment.

Vinyl Rarities

Trying to do some research on liquidating a large collection of classical LPs (“good luck with that” is what I keep hearing), I happened on this fascinating list of valuable vinyl. No idea how up-to-date or authoritative it is, but fun to browse.

Not surprisingly, unusual pressings of The Beatles figure prominently, but there is something even rarer, a single pressing of a 1927 blues recording that will set you back a cool 60K, if you can find it. But like the famous “Inverted Jenny” or  Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tamerlane and Other Poems,” likely to be rare on the ground..

Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 1.15.42 PMInverted_Jenny.tamerlane


Being a Better Helper

Have you ever asked somebody for computer help? Been asked? Offered advice unasked?  Received said unsolicited advice?

I’ve been in all four categories, and I suspect anybody reading this blog has as well. It can be a grim business the ‘computer helping’ game. (If I did reality shows instead of educational media, I’d pitch ‘Family Tech Support’ intense relationship drama. Probably too full of bad language for cable even. “But I don’t even see the enter key any where? Why the #$#!~*& is it called enter if it means ‘return?” A question for the ages.)

But there’s hope: earlier today, I encountered the best advice for helping somebody use a computer I’ve seen–and it’s 21 years old. Comes from a post by the Phil Agre, who was then at UCLA. The entire thing is at but here is the first bit…

Computer people are fine human beings, but they do a lot of harm in the ways they “help” other people with their computer problems. Now that we’re trying to get everyone online, I thought it might be helpful to write down everything I’ve been taught about helping people use computers.

First you have to tell yourself some things:

Nobody is born knowing this stuff.

You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner.


Good advice for teaching in general…Speaks to keeping the experience and the goals of the learner in mind, rather than a primary focus on what the teacher is doing. Simple, but hard to do…

Tip of the hat to for the link.

Poetic Words: Sharon Olds

poetryBoth Poetry Daily and Knopf Poem of the Day do celebrations of National Poetry Month (April, of course, the ‘cruelest’ month). Sharon Olds was one of Knopf’s selections, and she has always resonated with me, perhaps never more so than in this poem.


Then, one late afternoon,
I understand: the harm my father
did us is receding. I never thought
it would happen, I thought his harm was stronger than that,
like God’s harm—flood, or birth without
eyes, with mounds of tissue, no retina, no
pupil, the way my father on the couch did not
seem not to be using eyes
but not to have them, or to have objects
for eyes—Jocastal dress-brooches.
But he had not been hated, so he did not hate us,
just scorned us, and it is wearing off.
My son and daughter are grown, they are well
as if by some miracle. The afternoon has a
quality of miracle, the starlings all facing
the west, his grave. I come to the window
as if to open it, and whisper,
My father’s harm is fading. Then,
I think that he would be glad to hear it
directly from me,

so I come to where you are, bone
settled under the dewed tangle
of the blackish Northwoods moss like the crossroads
hair of a beloved. I come to you here
because it is home: your done-with body
broken back down into earth, holding
its solemn incapable beauty.

Perhaps all writers make use of their family first and foremost, but few do it as fearlessly.

Predictions, Dumb and Otherwise, about Technology in Schools in 2025

Clear thoughts on ed tech and the future from a hero of mine. I would go further even than Larry–not only are the big questions about teaching and learning, its purposes, means, and content more important; the endless noisy hum of speculation and consumer reports level chatter about the so-called revolutionary potential of ed tech mostly is a white noise generator to keep the discussion of the deeper issues inaudible.

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

One easily trips over a list of high-tech tools that have become obsolete in the past decade (e.g., floppies, fax machines). I used many of these myself and remember junking them, saying to myself: hey, these were highly touted, I bought the second- or third-generation version and now I am dumping them.  Other lists of high-tech predictions for 2020 were equally entertaining about the future of schools. This list posted by a high-tech enthusiast who yearns for a paperless society and totally customized instruction with smaller, greener schools tickled me because while I do agree with some of the items, others are, well, dreams. I have been reading such dream lists for years about high-tech devices (with brand-new names) promising a glorious (or nefarious) future just around the corner, including the disappearance of the teacher (see here).

And I have contributed to such lists with my own predictions over…

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Holiday Greetings: All Rights Reserved

A giggle courtesy of Brian Leiter’s great blog, Leiter Reports.


Via reader Ian Best comes this all-purpose set of seasons greetings, written by Professor Gary Potter (Music, Indiana-Bloomington):

In fact, Puritans didn’t even have Christmas, but if they had, I bet a lot of rules would have been involved.

From me (“the wishor”) to you (“the wishee”):

Please accept without obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, politically correct, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practised within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all. I wish you a financially successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2016, but with due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures or sects, and having regard to the race, creed, colour, age, physical ability, religious faith, choice of computer platform or sexual preference of the wishee.

By accepting this greeting you are bound by these terms that:-

This greeting is subject to further clarification or withdrawal.

This greeting is freely transferable provided that no alteration shall be made to the original greeting and that the proprietary rights of the wishor are acknowledged.

This greeting implies no promise by the wishor to actually implement any of the wishes.

This greeting may not be enforceable in certain jurisdictions and/or the restrictions herein may not be binding upon certain wishees in certain jurisdictions and is revocable at the sole discretion of the wishor.

This greeting is warranted to perform as reasonably may be expected within the usual application of good tidings, for a period of one year or until the issuance of a subsequent holiday greeting, whichever comes first.

The wishor warrants this greeting only for the limited replacement of this wish or issuance of a new wish at the sole discretion of the wishor.

Any references in this greeting to “the Lord”, “Father Christmas”, “Our Saviour”, “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer” or any other festive figures, whether actual or fictitious, dead or alive, shall not imply any endorsement by or from them in respect of this greeting, and all proprietary rights in any referenced third party names and images are hereby acknowledged.

This greeting is made under Czech Law.

Computers and Education

A few tidbits that caught my eye on computers and education. First, the inspiring Conrad Wolfram adding his powerful voice to an argument that is now 30 years old…whether we should still be wasting the massive amount of time we do teaching students to calculate by hand using algorithms they memorize, but neither understand nor will ever use.

One thing he doesn’t get into…rote methods are certainly inappropriate for this computerized age because computing has fundamentally changed both mathematics and will change education, although not without a fight, but what’s more–there is really very limited evidence they worked in the past. As somebody who has spent a lot of the last 20 years doing work in math education, the nostalgia for our parents’, grandparents’, and and great grandparents’ modes of teaching and learning math would be funny if it weren’t so sad. If they are around, go ask them what it was like, and then reflect whether you’d go back, and also what it did for them? (For the mathematically elect it worked, everybody else it was a dead letter).

Wolfram’s ideals–problem solving, real world problems, real engagement with computing as part of thinking, and assessments that make this visible, are mine. But the question does remain, what do you do in class as a teacher? What does it actually look like? Pedagogy–although there is much talk about scientific testing thereof–often seems like pseudo science. For one thing, real tests on actual students raise ethical questions, time/longitudinal work is hard to do, and controlling for variables is logistically impossible. (I went to seven schools before I was 14, just for one factor, I also grew up with writing teacher father and journalist mother. I wasn’t a very tractable English student, and would have stood for being a lab rat even less.

What I’ve wondered about for years is whether you could take educational data and create a model of an educational experience in a computer, including necessary data on the students, the teachers, the environment, and the content, and then feed in various pedagogical approaches and see the results? You could run as many trails as possible speeded up as you want, and watch these simulations to see what happen.

One problem with this is that learning (as opposed to scoring tests) has been very poorly modeled in computers until recently (and even now it’s still pretty primitive–the not exactly earth shattering discovery that students take many different paths to solving problems is enough to get you tenure at Stanford apparently, although doesn’t seem like something a grade school teacher takes more than a week or two to notice her first year!).

A piece in the Post by Joel Achenbach on computers that that learn the way humans do. It too is pretty primitive in comparison to my automated learning simulation lab idea, but at least it suggests that there is some plausibility that such a thing might happen.

By the way, on an unrelated note: The Post is reading better than it has done in years. I attribute it, right or wrong, to Marty Baron, and certainly not to Bezos, beyond his hiring of Baron.nypl.digitalcollections.8a697433-f5e6-9749-e040-e00a18066330.001.w


A break from my usual humanities stuff to give a shout out to Nicole Jeray, an LPGA golfer with narcolepsy, who graciously let the team at VOX Television, where I am a digital producer, profile her for the centerpiece of a patient education project on the disorder.

She’s profiled in today’s NYTimes, and here’s the site, part of an ongoing project on sleep health and education.

Here’s the video.

And the site…