Software for the finest computer – The Mind


Posted by Tim Bryce on January 12, 2015


– “I’ll never use it in the real world, will I?”

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An old friend in Versailles, Kentucky recently wrote to me. He is a High School math teacher who is tired of hearing the question from his students, “Why do I have to take this course? I will never use it.” This, of course, is a common lament heard by teachers around the world but it seems to be growing in intensity. Students pose the question as they believe it will have no bearing on their lives, particularly due to technology.

Some people question why their children have to memorize multiplication tables since there are so many calculators embedded in computers and smart phones. This would also suggest the end of the slide rule and the abacus. Others question the need to teach spelling as spell checkers will automatically correct errors, and speech recognition software can be used to read text. I guess the future of printed books is dim, right?

The reason for learning these basic concepts is simple: so people do not become dependent on a particular technology and can carry on manually, and; so they can appreciate the effect of technology. To illustrate, I taught system design for many years. My students learned to define information requirements, and from these specifications, decompose a system into its business processes, work flows, and software. The exercises were conducted manually and in teams. At the end, they had produced a complete system design, all remarkably similar. Afterwards I would then show them how this process could be automated using deductive reasoning. When the computer generated the system design, they understood completely what it had done. Not surprising, the computer produced design was no different than the human’s. Again, the intent was to teach the principles and mechanics so they could do it themselves, and so they could appreciate the need for automation.

The obsession with technology though is becoming overbearing. For example, computer graphics programs are having an adverse effect on illustration and artwork in general. Computer Aided Design (CAD) has become an integral part of drafting and blueprinting. Interestingly, I know of a helicopter firm which lost power at its headquarters. Consequently, the company came to a complete standstill, particularly in the engineering department where draftsmen had no idea what to do without the aid of their computers. As an aside, I do not believe any of them understood what a “French Curve” was.

When I was young, I was proud to master the multiplication tables. As kids, we turned it into a competitive game. I also developed my love for reading at the local library. The ability to grasp concepts and ideas is essential for human curiosity, creativity and problem solving. By becoming dependent on technology though, we arrest our mental development. It’s one thing to implement technology based on concepts we grasp, quite another to effectively use technology without an understanding of the concepts. By doing so, we will not challenge the results produced by technology, thereby leaving us exposed to critical error.

So, to the students of my friend’s high school class in Kentucky, “Why do you need to take this course?” No, you may not need it in your professional lives, but you need it to become a thinking and active member of the human race. Even though technology may do the work for you, these classes are critical for your personal mental development. It ultimately provides you with the ability to “carry on” when your technology fails you.

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M&JB Investment Company (M&JB) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at

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Copyright © 2015 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

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  1. Tim Bryce said

    A C.D. of Missouri wrote…
    “These millennium students get all the luxury when it comes to technology. Back in the days, if I had to complete a paper I spent many hours in the library manually searching for a topic in the encyclopedia. Today these students can get information at the click of a button on the web. I agree these students should learn manually for their personal development and carry on in the event technology crashes and fails. Great write-up. Thanks for sharing.”

    A W.H. of Boulder, Colorado wrote…

    As I’ve told you in the past, I have a BS in Chemistry and an MSEE. I’m one of those kids (from the 60’s) that said EXACTLY the same thing – WHY do I have to take (fill in the blank…)English Lit, Political Science, Oral Communications, etc. I didn’t see the need for any of it while I was in High School or pursuing my BS degree. After all, I’d been reared (not raised … you rear children, you raise crops) SPEAKING and THINKING in English … I shouldn’t have to take more courses in “English” – should I?

    Fast forward a few years. I’d been in the Navy for a while, I’d been a division officer responsible for writing evaluation reports, doing all sorts of counselling of young sailors (some of whom had Masters Degrees and even PhD’s but who didn’t want the “responsibility” of being an officer). I went to Naval Postgraduate School where basically we took 18-21 hours per quarter of graduate level work in EE – doing all the makeup classes we should have had to get the BSEE degree before being allowed to continue on to the MSEE courses. We REALLY didn’t have time for any extraneous or superfluous courses in Monterey. So, imagine ALL the engineers shaking their heads when we were required by the Secretary of the Navy to take a pass/fail course in “Intercultural Communications”. AND … there WAS a reason we were required to take that course … and it had nothing whatsoever to do with an MSEE degree, but DID have significance for us as officers in the Navy.

    I’m one of the few engineers who can actually spell, write, and think without a computer. Of course, having a computer makes things a lot more convenient AND it lets me do things FASTER. But, in reality, sometimes using a computer only lets you make more mistakes faster.

    While I was in Monterey from 1973-1976, HP had JUST released their HP45 Scientific Calculator. My wife, being the loving person she was, decided I needed to have one of those $500 calculators so I could do my homework faster (and thus spend more time with her…duh). About the same time, TI released the TI-50 and those two represented the bulk of the calculators that you saw in class back then. BUT, just about everyone brought their slide rules to class for tests “just in case” the batteries failed – and there were a few occasions where the slide rule worked better and faster than the calculators. In fact, some professors gave you more leeway in your answers if you used a slide rule. If you used the calculator, you darned well better get the EXACT answer; if you used the slide rule, you just needed to get “close.”

    I did find, using the calculator, that I would get to a certain point in the process and be entering things like 2+2 into the mix. I suddenly realized that I was getting lazy and letting the calculator do work that I could actually do instinctively and quickly in my head, so I made it a point to practice doing the simple parts of the work in my head, and leave the more sophisticated steps to the calculator. I still do that, and my daughters wonder how I can get VERY CLOSE to the right answers in my head. PRACTICE. I hardly ever use calculators any more (although I have them) even when I’m balancing my checkbook. I only break one out (usually a four-function simple one) IF there seems to be a problem with my bank statement reconciliation….just to be sure.

    Not many people know how to use an abacus. In fact, in the 1980’s when I was in a management position at NSA, I had to hire new graduating engineers from the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins. EVERY ONE OF THEM had never even seen a slide rule, let alone been taught to use one. Imagine their confusion when I broke out a circular slide rule and compared it to a traditional parallel design.

    In the late 1990’s, when I was president of an elementary school PTA here in Boulder, they had a symposium to discuss what the classrooms of the 2000-2010 era should look like. Believe it or not, we had a lady from NOAA/NIST who was advocating laptop computers for all elementary school kids loaded with calculators, spell checkers, and grammar checkers so they wouldn’t have to take those courses and could spend more time on the “essential” skills they needed (although, she wasn’t all that clear on what those skills actually were). The problem with spelling and grammar checkers is that they aren’t all that good. There are too many examples of synonyms and homonyms in English that confuse the spell-checkers, and the grammar checkers usually focus more on passive versus active sentences, but have precious little accuracy otherwise. I only use grammar checkers to COUNT WORDS and to assess a rough educational level that is required to understand the piece I’m writing.

    eBooks are doing that for us – we don’t have to wait for these other things. I must confess, I resisted getting a Nook/Kindle for a LONG time. My youngest daughter finally gave me one for Christmas this year. What I’ve found is that it’s EASIER to read the books on the NOOK, but there are some things you have to get used to if you plan to use them routinely. I’ve found my reading speed and retention are getting better as I use it, although I’ve never taken a speed reading course. Part of it is because the line of words is shorter than it is in a solid book, so you can actually train yourself to process the entire line on a NOOK easier than you can on a real book. BUT…I still have a rather large collection of physical books. I just think you’ll gradually see folks move to the electronic books, but for more practical reasons (space, weight, cost).

    You said: The reason for learning these basic concepts is simple: so people do not become dependent on a particular technology and can carry on manually,

    You see it all the time today. Go into a fast food place and give them a single bill to pay for your food. They ring up the charge and you are going to get a boat-load of change – so you reach into your pocket and pull out a few coins to change how many pieces of metal you’re going to get from the cashier. They give you this funny look, like they don’t know WHY you’re giving them change when they’re supposed to give it to you. You have to help them, and even then they still stay confused.

    You said: Computer Aided Design (CAD) has become an integral part of drafting and blueprinting.

    When I worked at Ball Aerospace, we had a senior mechanical engineer who refused to use CAD/CAM and insisted on using a drafting table to do his initial concept designs for spacecraft. He’d been doing that for 30+ years and was getting ready to retire. He could come up with the initial design AND revise it on the way to a final concept FASTER than the CAD/CAM techs could, mostly because he had INSTINCT and EXPERIENCE. I saw it time after time.

    You said: “Why do you need to take this course?” No, you may not need it in your professional lives, but you need it to become a thinking and active member of the human race. Even though technology may do the work for you, these classes are critical for your personal mental development. It ultimately provides you with the ability to “carry on” when your technology fails you.

    Actually, you also need those courses because YOU CAN NOT PREDICT what you’re REALLY going to be doing later in life. Responsibilities of position sometimes dictate skills you never thought you would need … and some of them aren’t the kind of things you can get by OJT (On the Job Training).


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