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Computing Thoughts
Upside-Down Examples
by Bruce Eckel
August 20, 2009
Summary
The kind of thing I've been talking about: time-share restaurants, edupunk and microlending.

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It's hard to imagine different ways of thinking about business without examples, so I'm starting to collect them. Here's the first batch.

Time-Share Restaurants

Speaking with one of my neighbors here in Crested Butte, she started talking about wanting to create a restaurant, which is a tricky business at best and even harder in a resort town with its ebbs and flows and off-seasons.

I mentioned the example given in Seth Godin's book Tribes, about a restaurant in New York that is only open 20 days a year, on selected Saturdays. You find out and sign up via the web, and they have a full house every time. Because they don't have to worry about being open at the whim of walk-in customers, they can spend all their time focusing on food rather than being constantly distracted by day-to-day management of a storefront.

We wondered if a restaurant space, or even just a commercial kitchen and searching for spaces that could be used in a guerrilla fashion, could be a viable model. Working with a number of different kitchen users becomes much more practical via the web.

Edupunk

The September 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine reports on the edupunk movement, which deconstructs education by observing that universities were founded to share a single scarce resource -- the book. At the time, there was often only a single book available, so the professor, acting as a kind of antique web server, would read and lecture from the book while the students became browsers that would copy down what the professor was saying.

Obviously other aspects of the university have been beneficial enough for it to survive the introduction of the printing press and progressively cheaper books. If you've been to college, you know that colleges, professors and textbook publishers collude to create an artificial economy to extract more money from the students (usually, their parents). The fact that such behavior is institutionalized is an early indicator that something is wrong. Add to that the research granting system whereby a university takes half or more of the money granted to a professor for the privilege of being associated with the institution. And what most students have observed is that researchers don't make the best teachers, even though they are typically forced to also teach, a task that is often relegated to graduate students.

Colleges and universities can get away with this kind of behavior because they've fixed the game. For success in life, the story goes, you need to go to a college or university, and the reputation of the institution will get you a better job and higher pay. Of course, what an employer really wants is someone who can figure things out and is unafraid of taking risks. Does going to an expensive university guarantee this, or are you even more likely to find a go-getter by seeing who has paid their own way through a community college and then a state university? I had a lot of wanderlust during those years and so I experienced many different institutions of higher learning, including spending one semester at a community college, and the teaching there was in many cases significantly better than the places that touted themselves as superior.

The Edupunk movement asks what in the colleges and universities is leftover cruft based on centuries-old constraints. The answer is "a lot." If these institutions were designed today as green-field projects, there's a huge amount that would not appear, because it's unnecessary or even counterproductive.

Take just one thing: the eyes-forward nature of most classes. Again and again, studies show that lecturing is just about the worst way to transfer information. But by controlling the game, institutions don't need to change. The Edupunk movement is going to use the internet to route around the roadblock of traditional learning, and (as is so often the case) the colleges and universities will be playing catch-up to whatever emerges.

I'm not sure what the new form of learning will look like. Personally, I'd like it to be something that I myself couldn't resist being part of either the creation or consumption process (or maybe the answer is that everyone will be part of both. That's kind of an upside-down thought). I also don't think that the internet alone will be enough, at least not for me. Interacting with other people is essential, but colleges and universities have done a pathetic job of that, too.

I can imagine a lot of things going by the wayside. Semesters and tests, for example, and lots of other things that were evolved for the convenience of the people running the institution (again, because they had the upper hand and could get away with that kind of behavior). Imagine something where you did some independent study -- aided, of course, by great interactive learning programs, games, etc. -- and periodically there was some kind of open-spaces style conference where learners got together to share and discuss and otherwise invigorate the learning process.

What I do know is that by tearing down the expensive, old-style learning institutions and replacing them with something new, vastly better and much cheaper, we will enable a much larger number of people who want to learn -- eventually, perhaps, everyone who wants to learn -- to improve themselves. And that is just another thing that will change the world in amazing ways.

Microlending

Well, banks. It's very hard to convince them that money isn't the most important thing. Tough argument to make to a company that only thinks about money all the time. Sometimes a bank here and there starts thinking that maybe it's about service. Usually they can quickly quash that notion by hiring a Harvard MBA to come in and tune things back up to maximize shareholder value.

Even though these are the same geniuses that decided it was a good idea to make home loans to people who were absolutely guaranteed not to be able to pay for them (but real estate always goes up, right? And now the same idiots won't make loans to the most qualified of borrowers), the concept of making tiny loans to the poorest of the poor was clearly ridiculous. Even though those people truly, desperately needed those loans to start micro-businesses to raise themselves out of poverty -- usually these were women forced to support themselves through prostitution.

The weirdest thing about microlending is that the repayment rate is the highest of any banking activity. It may just be that the borrowers want to be able to get another loan to further increase their business -- and that happens a lot -- or maybe being downtrodden makes you more honest than working on Wall Street or (fill in your least-favorite business here; I currently vote for insurance companies and big pharma, who I'm convinced are winding up the right-wing wackos to prevent health care).

Since microlending began, there's been another phenomenon, which is funds created by individuals for microlending. All of these things enable people who want to start their own businesses and work hard (something we've always valued in this country, right?) to do so, and one thing we have learned in this country is that virtually all economic growth comes from small business.

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel (www.BruceEckel.com) provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2009 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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