On The Folly Of Enforced Standardized Testing

without sanity checks.

There are lessons from fields other than public education to be considered.

Years ago, I obtained the FCC Radiotelephone Operator First Class License. In that era it, along with the Amateur Extra Class license (DE KL7F), was considered to be functionally equivalent to a BS in Electrical Engineering by some firms when making hiring decisions. In the broadcast industry, it was required in order to function as the Chief Engineer of a radio station.

When I took up my duties at the AM station in Kodiak, AK, one of the things required by regulation was to gather copies of the licenses of all the persons who would be “operating” the station (i.e. pulling a board shift) and to place them in a container where the FCC inspectors, should they ever show up, could easily find them. Doing so, I found that three other employees had First Phone tickets.

I asked the station manager: “If you already have three Firsts on staff, why did you hire me?”

“Heh,” quoth he. “Those guys have troubles with light switches. Not one of them could tell you which end of a resistor is the cathode.”

It turned out that, because of FCC regulations requiring that a First Phone operator be on duty whenever the antenna system was “directional” (i.e. after local sundown), and due to economic considerations discouraging a station from having more than one person pulling the night shifts, stations tended to hire announcers/operators who had a First Phone ticket.

But passing the First exams was A Hard Thing, and Johnny Goodpipes and Fred Tightboard weren’t at all inclined to take up electronics in any serious manner.

Whatever were they to do?

Well, they could enroll in any number of schools that, after you paid them $N,000, would cram you and drill you until you could pass Elements I, II, III and IV. No matter how many times you went to the Houston FCC office and took the tests.

The end result: rampant fully-licensed electronic illiteracy.  

Eventually the FCC dropped the regulation, ended the issuance of First Phone tickets, and declared that Station Management were now fully responsible for determining that the station was being operated in compliance with technical standards.

When last I checked, the General Radio Operator License (which replaced the First — they mailed me a new certificate) is now only required for the person who maintains the studio-to-transmitter radio link.

Be very careful what you incent.

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After listening to Elephant Music

When we finally decode the languages of cetaceans, elephants, squids… we might find that their name for us translates to “Those mutant apes who know both too much and too little”.

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Getting something good from a Rambo flick

Revisiting my “Boy – Man – Boy” theory of veteran decompression.

I really dislike invoking any of the Stallone pieces, but ages ago I read the original “First Blood” book, and for reasons that now escape me I watched the movie on HBO. At the time I was struggling with the whole “who am I, who were we” bit, seeing so many vet friends continuing to go through difficult passages.

This one line from the movie hit me in the face:

Rambo: “Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment, back here I can’t even hold a job parking cars!”

OK. We were inducted (or we enlisted) as kids. We were trained, honed, sent forth. Some of us found ourselves in positions in which we shined, were promoted and given significant responsibilities. We did the canonical Damn Good Job. We Were MEN. Eventually, we DEROSed, ETSed, and found ourselves back on the block.

As kids.

So, Wendy, Michael and John are back from Neverland, and go back to being children in school. Forget that whole business with Captain Hook et al.

Right.

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Discarding The Excellent — yet another grumpy outburst.

One of the finest engineers still alive is someone I’ve known since 1975. He came to my attention, indirectly, when I was out doing field service — adjusting mechanisms, swapping boards, diagnosing comm problems, making dead computers compute. I began to notice something as I was changing out circuit boards in dead hardware. Many of the assemblies had lots of mods — printed circuit traces cut, blue wires run from place to place, sometimes even an IC or two glued to the board feet-up (the “dead bug” engineering change) with more blue wires. Yet there were a few other boards that had a layer of dust on them — never swapped. No blue wires. The circuit artwork revision number was ‘-‘. The board engineering rev level was ‘A’.

I eventually uncovered the identity of the genius who had designed these things. My first encounter with him, unknown to me, was when I was a new hire at field service basic training, and he was the instructor for a number of the instruction blocks, notably the Diablo printer (the first commercially dominant “daisy wheel” device) which the company incorporated into its products.

He had gained his knowledge of the Diablo Hytype by going over the tech documentation. I had gained mine from Diablo’s factory training, conducted by the engineer who had designed the electronics. As a result, in the first hours of the class, from time to time, I raised my hand to say something like “Uh… actually, it works a bit differently from that…”

We broke for lunch. When we returned, I couldn’t find my place in the classroom. Then I noticed that my name card was on the instructor’s desk, the instructor was sitting in my original place, grinning. There was a TV camera in the back of the room, and I was told to conduct the rest of this block.

Eventually I joined the instructor staff, shared an office with this guy, and learned that he had been my phantom genius designer. He had been booted from the Engineering group because he made the wrong people nervous. Give him a design assignment, and he might spend several days with his feet up on his desk staring at the ceiling, sipping tea and making an occasional note or writing an equation. Then, at the end of this exercise, he would draw a circuit diagram, take it to the lab and give it to an Electronics Technician saying “Build me one of these.” It was normal for that design to go into production with few if any changes.

This was basically career-ending, wherever he worked, when he could get hired…

He gave up working in Industry many years ago.  It is evident that fewer than ten other people alive understand magnetics at his level; he makes a steady living as an independent, designing startlingly efficient motors and solenoids, and doing design recovery. I guarantee that none of the biggies would hire him on staff.

Just too weird, doesn’t interview well.

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On the utter folly of the “Rock Star” hiring model, or “You think you want to hire Mozart, but you should be looking for Bruckner”

Herein I present a critique of hiring practices in the tech industries, together with an awkward admission that the compose-it-now model actually worked, howbeit in a completely different business sector.

Well over a year ago, having been unemployed for long enough to have been forced into foreclosure (thanks, Wells Fargo!) and Chapter 13 bankruptcy, three Large Technology Corporations, thanks to the efforts of friends, invited me to interview for various sorts of techie positions.

Admittedly I am not your average newcomer, having written my first program in 1962 on a Control Data CDC160-A, and having a bunch of other accomplishments on my copybook in subsequent years.  Looking back on the variety of high-performance software I have created, delivered and maintained over the past few decades, including notable contributions to the performance of engine control systems in automobiles manufactured by a major manufacturer, I have reason to consider myself a significant asset to an organization needing a software designer/implementer with a nifty track record.

In 100% of these job interview cases, the No Sale red flag came up in the register.  In two out of the three, in fact, we didn’t make it past the lunch break before I was invited to turn in my visitor badge and leave the building.

What happened?  In each case, setting aside the Google-repudiated practice of submitting the candidate to “brain teaser / logic puzzle” ordeals (epic fail at Akamai and Netflix), there was the “step up to the whiteboard and write a C function that does the following…” problem (epic fail at Akamai, Netflix and Amazon).

I’m sure that lots of people can do that sort of thing.  My response to this sort of demand is “I’ll have to think about that.”

When I compose software, there is a preliminary “thinking about it” period that lasts anywhere from minutes to weeks.  My first draft is almost never correct, for anything more complex than a subroutine that properly increments the H and L registers.  That’s just the way my brain operates, but it has profited a number of corporations mightily when it has been allowed to operate that way.

So, where is the model fault?  It is in looking for the Rock Star (someone who can improvise in one beautiful moment of performance) rather than a Composer (someone who creates and perfects a work that can be performed an unlimited number of times).  One must note that the Rock Star does the improvisation in the midst of a previously composed, rehearsed and perfected work.  (Perhaps one might snarkishly add that the Rock Star is often noted for trashing hotel rooms and being incarcerated for possession of controlled substances, but that is an entirely different discussion).

My current employer, blessings be upon him/her/it/them, required none of the above (although I was required to recite from memory the entire sequence of events in an SMTP mail delivery transaction — a reasonable request, given the job description), and “I’ll have to think about that” is an entirely acceptable answer to many workday queries.

So, to come belately to the point:  do you want a gifted improviser —  someone who can, if need be, play the piano whilst upside-down?  Or, perhaps, do you need someone who can create a large, cohesive work that can be performed more-or-less mechanically for the next several hundred years without fault or folly?  YMMV.

And now, the awkward bit:

As a professional actor (I get paid, but not necessarily enough to live without having a day job), I audition.  An audition is in essence a job interview, but one in which you are required to do the job in part, in order to demonstrate that you will be able to do it in full.

In three cases in the last 25 years, I have auditioned for a role where, reading the sides (script excerpts) it said something along the lines of “Sings: <song lyrics>”.  When I asked for the music score for the song, none was to be had.  “It’s up to you” was the rejoinder.  So, in each case, I composed the music on the spot, and performed it for the audition.  In each case, I got the role, and in each case the on-the-spot composition ended up, with minor refinements, in the produced show.

Some days, the magic works…

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Airport Memories

Today I spent some time in an eatery at Seattle/Tacoma airport, leisurely consuming my lox+cream cheese bagel and pint of Alaska Amber when 4 MPs arrived to occupy the space next to mine (we were at small tables along a long wall seat). The one nearest me politely greeted me, finishing his sentence with “, sir.”

I smiled and said “I was an E-5 when I got out, so best not call me ‘sir’. You guys coming or going?” They were coming (home from Afghanistan).

We exchanged occasional pleasantries. At one point I offered the opinion that, given a choice between being rejuvenated and sent to Afghanistan, or put in a time machine and doing another tour in Viet-Nam, it would be RVN hands down. They were surprised; they were generally of the opinion that we had the worse deal.

Shortly before I finished the repast and headed to the gate, a random stranger came up to shake their hands and thank them for their service.

This brought back memories: in 1971, in this very airport, traveling home in my Class-A uniform after my release from active duty, I received a significantly less friendly reception.

You win some, you lose some.

I wish them well. They will need it.

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Revenge and Justice are orthogonal.

In fairness, it must be said that the deplorable “An Eye For An Eye, A Tooth For A Tooth” was a considerable improvement over what it replaced:

“You have broken my tooth; now therefore I come to kill you, sell your wives and children into slavery, burn your crops, kill your cattle, sow your fields with salt, and make your house a dunghill forever.”

Revenge says: If you break my window, I am entitled to come and break your window.

Justice says: If I break your window, I must come and restore your window.

Would that the Hittites (who were focused more upon equity than upon retribution) had had a greater influence upon our society than did their Abrahamic contemporaries.

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