Sunday, December 16, 2012

Why I'm Steamed

Regular followers of my blog — yes, I’m talking to you two — know that I originally named this blog “A Pirate Looks at Sixty.” I always liked that Jimmy Buffett song and it seemed to fit a retrospective column by a guy in his mid-sixties looking back on his life spent with technology and family. When I started writing, about half my essays were about family. But, as time went by, they became more and more focused on technology. I wrote either about my life in the tech biz or about technical subjects such as computers or global warming.

I soon learned that Buffett had written an autobiography with the title “A Pirate Looks at Fifty.” He’s a little younger than me. So my blog title became even less original than I thought it had been when it was just a copy of a song title.

Then it came to me, what I was writing about was STEM and my recent discovery of STEAMD. I’ve explained those acronyms before. STEM is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. The A and D are added for Art and Design. One use of the acronym is to describe school curricula, especially in the middle school and high school areas. As the US struggles to keep its current dominance of the world economic system while losing manufacturing and leadership to other countries, one effort has been to strengthen our education system and turn out more scientists and engineers. Since my entire life has been Teaching and Technology ... mostly teaching technology, this resonates strongly with me.

One of the great things about teaching is the leverage it provides. I could only have done so much engineering or programming in my lifetime. But now, through my students, I can't even measure the total impact. I taught at a private technical school, a College, and at IBM to employees and customers. I even taught for a while at a University in Puerto Rico. I have not kept track of all those students and what they have done with their lives. I only know about some of the people I trained in Boulder in the Programmer Retraining curriculum. Many of them went on to be top programmers and manager at IBM, and I've personally used a lot of code that they developed. I'm very proud of the accomplishments of my students … even if I don't know what most of them did.

Mostly I taught other technical people Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (with a few exceptions), but even the general population needs to understand STEM in a manner similar to how people of the 19th century understood horses. Horses were a way of life and everyone was exposed to them. Now STEM is a way of life and everyone is exposed to technology.

Yesterday I wrote a long comment on Facebook that contained several positive statements about Microsoft. That is rare for me as I’m usually the one bashing MS. I’ve called them the “Borg,” resistance is futile. However, lately, they don’t seem to be winning as much. The current “Mobile Revolution” has nearly left them behind and made Windows something of another horse and buggy story. Quaint way to ride around Central Park, but not a modern mode of transportation.

I actually complemented Windows 8 for Phones as not a carbon copy of Apple’s innovative solutions. If you look close at Android from Google you will see it is about as original as all the IBM PC clones that came out in the latter ‘80s. No, MS actually put a fresh face on the smartphone. I’m less enthusiastic about the PC version of Win8 because I don’t think touch screens are so important to that genre, but I give Billy’s Boys credit for some new thinking on the interface.

I also admit that Windows 7 (and even Windows XP) are excellent, re-fined and polished computer Operating Systems. You do have to realize that MS is the primary engine behind a lot of modern technology with the relatively small mind share of Apple, Unix/Linux, and even IBM and its various versions of mainframes leaving the lions share to Microsoft. That is changing, very slowly, but it is changing; and the Mobile Revolution is the primary spark to that revolution / evolution. Will tablets (or slates) replace keyboards in corporate and business environments? … yes and no. Some will, some won’t. It is really down to the right tool for the job, and sometimes mobile is magnificent and sometimes desktop is delectable. But the large choice of tools is reducing the power of the monopoly that Microsoft once enjoyed.

But back to my story about STEM and STEAMD. When IBM sold its PC Division to Lenovo, my loyalty ended. I still used all IBM at work since that was pretty much the only option (although a few IBMers carried Macs around the lab and plant) and at home I just migrated to HP and Dell (and a misadventure with Sony).

I had Macs too, but they were only curiosities that kept me current on technology. I had Linux too, but my day-to-day computing at home and office was all Windows. In addition, I was an MS Office Power User. I was King of Word and the Lord of Excel. I was Mr. PowerPoint and I even used the MS databases to great advantage. Outlook was about the only tool I didn’t use, only learning just enough to keep my dad’s computer in the email business. I had years of study, practice, and talent with those Office tools, and I could make them dance and sing. I would spend hours in my office with other IBMers showing them how to extract data using Brio and then import it into Excel and map out the results with fancy graphs and tables. I was much in demand at the various training sessions to teach people how to use these complex and powerful tools that became the daily bread of most engineers and professionals at IBM and other corporations.

I hung onto an old Lotus SmartSuite program that I’d used since the days of Borland Sidekick: Lotus Organizer, and was forced somewhat happily to use Lotus Notes for all my email and chat rooms and teamrooms. Over time, most IBM IT tools evolved to Lotus Notes applications, and I was happy to use and modify and even create new apps using LotusScript. It worked, it was highly integrated with networks and communications, it was secure and encrypted, and … did I mention? … it worked.

It was complex and I had to study and read a lot to figure out all the bells and whistles, but IT WORKED!

Starting in 2010, in preparation for retirement, I began buying Apple computers. I got a Mac Air as my go-to portable machine to replace my soon to be returned to IBM/InfoPrint,  job provided, very nice indeed, Lenovo ThinkPad. I even have an IBM ThinkPad in my personal collection, but not as new and fancy as that final model InfoPrint provided.

Of course I had several iPods well before this early venture into Apple computers, and then I got my first iPhone, the 3Gs. This is really getting good. For Christmas, 2010, I received a new iPad as a gift and there was no turning back. Soon I owned a MacBook Pro and a couple of Mac Minis and now I’m moving to the real hard stuff with a 27” iMac and soon a Mac Pro with more power than most of those IBM mainframes I used in my early computer youth.

Along the way I became a fan of Apple’s way of doing business. It is KISS to the extreme with a heart for design deep in the Apple DNA forced on many a reluctant engineer by the far seeing brilliance of Steve Jobs. As I've read how Steve agonized over the rounded corners on Apples icons, I realized what a heart and soul of an artist he actually was. My original view was that Wozniak was the engineer and Jobs was the business man and maybe the visionary. I began to realize just how wide his vision actually was. I still identify more with Woz, but it is Jobs that took Apple to the top.

Partly due to that new focus and my growing hobby of photography aided by the digital revolution in cameras, I began to focus (pun intended) more on art and design. I had played and recorded music since my youth, and that also became an increasing influence on my thinking as I converted from magnetic recording tape to the digital domain. My many artistic interests became focused on a single principle of digital implementations moderated by fine design and artistic elegance. Art and Design became something I thought about and studied with the joy and intensity that I had previously reserved for a mathematical problem or a physics equation. Balance and color and emotion became key concepts to my thinking and what I created and produced. Too late for my career at IBM, I turned this new-found focus on my personal life and my writing.

I discovered a new acronym STEAMD which added “A” for Art and “D” for Design to the technology of the original acronym. Now I had found the promised land. It all came together, the success of Apple, the lack of "ease of use" that MS Office and most other complex digital constructions embodied. I had spent my life teaching people how to use (and create) complex objects, and now I understood that complexity must be hidden and the famous, telephone book size, challenging to the user manuals that I had digested with glee to the very loss of my vision was not the answer. Technology must be easy to use and intuitive. Complex, sure, but like a duck rapidly swimming: serene on the surface and all the paddling and splashing hidden from view under the water.

That very same powerful technology has provided me with tools and insights. One is the TED talks. I enjoy them in a comfortable chair like I used to enjoy a book … only with sound and sight and color and imagination stirring thoughts. One of many powerful moments I’ve spent in the glow of a video screen was when took the stage to talk about the importance of getting children involved in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — the STEM subjects. The lead singer of the Black Eyed Peas has become an impassioned spokesperson for how STEM will power the economy and lift neighborhoods from poverty, and for how we need to do more to get kids to pursue careers in the STEM fields.

Thinking about this, I realized it's no coincidence that someone like — an artist himself — makes the case for STEM the best. As the CEO of a global trans-media company and president of the preeminent school of art and design both agreed in their discussion, the amazing thinking and making that creative people — artists and designers — engage in everyday is the solution to building the interest in children and students for STEM.

It's why, like himself has recently started to champion that we need to include Art and Design when we talk about how STEM powers innovation. We need to add Art to turn STEM to STEAM. I'm glad that public school curriculum are focused on basics, but art is as much a basic as science and design belongs there with reading and writing.

I had been a long subscriber to Ironically, I first turned to those tutorials to understand the complex applications I was using from Adobe Photoshop to Pro Tools editing software. The artistic collaborators on her web site soon had me viewing design and creativity tutorials. I doubt you can learn creativity, it is an in-born quality, but I think everyone has some creativity, and just as a dull knife can be sharpened by repeated application of a stone, my dull creative wits became sharper and stronger as I digested these concepts and started practicing them in my own creative endeavors.

But my strongest personal force is as an engineer. That is why I added “D” for Design. (Actually not my addition … all this was already out there … I just adopted it to my personal philosophy.) Yes, Design, Industrial Design, Computer Design, Software Design.


  1. to create,fashion, execute, or construct according to plan
    1. to conceive and plan out in the mind: designed
    2. to have as a purpose designed
    3. to devise for a specific function or end designed

  2. archaic: to indicate with a distinctive mark, sign, or name

  3. to make a drawing, pattern, or sketch of
    1. to draw the plans for <design a building>
    2. to conceive or execute a plan
    3. to draw, lay out, or prepare a design

This study has reinforced three important points about why STEAMD, not STEM, is so critical:

  1. Artists and designers bring STEM to life:

    As we all know, STEM is so important — but on its own, sadly it's not working. Despite all of the resources being invested in it, the word is exactly what's wrong with the concept. It doesn't inspire, energize or engage the youth whom it is ultimately intended to benefit; hence our nation is falling desperately behind.

    If you use the Internet to learn more about people and things, when an artist like Yo Yo Ma or speaks or performs, you instantly recognize the attention the Arts commands. There's a level of storytelling and pure emotion that only they can convey that makes people sit up and take note. It's artists and designers who tell stories to move, to inspire, to entertain, to persuade. This same creative thinking that will be required to solve the gnarly challenges the 21st century presents to us.

    As an example, there was a recent campaign by the Lumina Foundation called KnowHow2Go, aimed at getting high school kids prepared for college. It reminds them of the required courses they will need to take to be considered for admission -- Natural Sciences, Mathematics, Foreign Languages. Lumina is right: these are the subjects many colleges value. But what about the important work of getting the students tuned in to this message? That was done with a compelling campaign developed by the same kinds of artists and designers who end up working for firms like

  2. Creativity will always be America's secret sauce:

    What is missing from traditional STEM approaches is what has always been the "secret sauce" to American progress -- creativity. When we think about the success of the American auto industry in its heyday, or Apple’s present success, it's because both pioneered taking a product that was purely functional and made it desirable. Both took a piece of technology and provided artistry.

    We see examples every day — of students experimenting with a new material to get the desired shape, of sound editors staying up to all hours mixing to get the desired impact, of web designers testing versions to get the most intuitive experience. The artists' and designers' passionate pursuit to express themselves — to make an impact — gives the technology in their hands purpose and makes innovation come alive.

    This is why I found the story about Steve Jobs obsessing about the exact round corners on the Apple icons to be so compelling. I think the engineers thought he was wasting his time. What they didn't grasp was the importance of Art in the overall Design … even when that Art is only in the eye of the beholder. It did matter, though, when that beholder was the founder and CEO of the company. Let's all hope that that focus is not lost now that Steve is no longer at the helm. Hopefully the engineers and designers have got it straight and can carry on.

  3. STEAMD is gaining traction

    I have been championing STEAMD for a while and have truly seen a national movement starting to take shape. In addition to this year Sesame Street is being brought to viewers by the letters S - T - E - A - M. Only a year ago, Elmo was interviewed on CNN about the importance of S -T - E -M.

    In Rhode Island, Representative Jim Langevin (D-RI) introduced House Resolution 319, which "Expresses the sense of the House of Representatives that adding art and design into federal programs that target Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, encourages innovation and economic growth in the United States." Government agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts are working together and are both behind STEAMD as well.

So now you see why I’m so steamed up over STEAMD. It’s rapidly becoming a movement. And you can be part of that movement. Insist that the tools and technology you purchase has good design. Don’t settle for overly complex or dumbed down technology. Tell them you’re STEAMD and you aren't going to take it any more!

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