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Views from the Prairie

February 10

What we really know

Have you ever run into someone who was totally convinced of something that you knew to be wrong? While this is common in political fields, it happens also in the business world. This is a type of ignorance that is not easily cured.

As human beings, it is normal to not know everything. It is normal to make assumptions all the time. We have to do that in order to cope with the world. Indeed, this ability to put a lot of things on "auto pilot" is what makes us able to do so well at hunting and raising children. But, when our deeply held assumptions are wrong, that is when we run into trouble.

This is such a common problem in software development that "ignorance" now has classifications.

Zero level ignorance is where I know something and can prove that I know it.

First level ignorance is when I know that I don't know something

Second level ignorance is when I don't know that I don't know something

Third level ignorance is when I don't know an efficient way to find out if I don't know something.

Just like trying to argue with someone about politics, curing ignorance when the person is not aware of being ignorant is an exercise in futility. In most cases, the person in question will resent you trying to "educate" them. Experience is often the only teacher that will be heard. It is an expensive education, but often that is the only way. As Mark Twain said, "A man who carries a cat by the tail will learn something he can learn in no other way."

However, such people can cause a lot of problems. Because of their certainty, they are able to mislead others. When looking at history, we see how the certainty that a specific way of life is the right one has caused environmental disasters, social upheavals, as well as political disasters. Many times, the cop who has just stopped someone has that action challenged with "Don't you know who I am?" Their certainty that they are correct prevents them from seeing how their actions are wrong.

In software development, the problem is often found in those who are sure that they know what is to be done. Many times, they jump in and start work on a project before all the details have come out. While it can be fun to do that, most cases that means that their work will be replaced later on in the project. Sometimes, their choices made too early can mean serious rework later on when a design has to be redone.

In business, often we have to tell people multiple times what needs to be done. The first times, people filter what we say through their own ideas of what needs to be done. It can be rather frustrating to go through the process over and over again before getting past the preconceived ideas.

Ignorance is a challenge. Yet, when we help people get past that ignorance, we get the best results.


Recently, Charlie Wilson died. He was one of the "rascals" in American life. He was known for the ladies and the drinking - and also for taking exceptional action to help the Afghan fighters push back the Soviets. In his honor, it is time to celebrate American rascals.

There are many Americans who love order and structured society. Unfortunately for them, we have rascals - starting with the smugglers who made Boston the start of the American Revolution, the pirates of Louisiana who helped beat the British in 1812, the people who violated the Indian treaties to find gold, all the way up to Charlie Wilson. Rascals have broken societal conventions, violated treaties, cheated, lied, and pushed our society in ways that the "orderly citizens" have not.

Rascals both challenge and benefit society. Because they do things that others wouldn't do, they have been instrumental in many of the advances of our day. Yet, their lives have often left others hurt. Only through efforts of people willing to break the laws was the Underground Railroad established helping slaves escape to freedom. Slave owners were harmed, while the slaves benefited. Rascals are both a benefit to us and harm many people. The difference between a rouge and a rascal is that the rascals care about other people.

Vernon Parrington wrote of original "Robber Barons" that they "were primitive souls, ruthless, predatory, capable; single minded men; rouges and rascals often but never feeble, never hindered by petty scruple, never given to puling or whining - the raw materials of a race of capitalistic buccaneers."

Let us celebrate that rascals exist. Without them, America would not have accomplished as much as it has. At the same time, others can make their own moral choices in the marketplace.

Full Scan Effective?

Just when officials are pushing the "full body scanner" for airports, a German TV show had a demonstration of a professor being scanned by one and then pulling out enough chemicals to burn a hole in a plane. Relying on technology for security is never enough.


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