A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Hooptedoodle #34 - The Otto Effect

With my mind still churning over the contents of my gentle rant from yesterday, I was reminded of Otto. Otto worked for me for a while, around 20 years ago, and he was a marvel, in his own way - one of the smartest guys I ever met, but troubled by a lack of natural understanding of what it was he was required to do. It wasn't that he lacked commonsense, it was more that his commonsense was different from other people's. After some initial rattling around, we got on very well and became good friends. Oh, and his name, of course, is not Otto.

At that time I was in charge of an analysis group in a big private company, and Otto came to me with something of a bad rep, regarded as remarkably bright, but a bit awkward and lacking in patience, and often argumentative. I found him to be very personable, and the first job I got him to do for me was to investigate some training courses - the company needed a particular form of (potentially expensive) specialist IT training which we had not used before. I asked Otto to spend a month researching what suitable courses were on the market, check them out, travelling to see the suppliers and their facilities as necessary, and report back to me with his recommendations. This, you will observe, was long before the internet got going.

Otto seemed puzzled by this, and asked a lot of questions. He took a lot of detailed notes and eventually, with something very close to a shrug, set about his task. After a month of impressive industry, he reported back on the appropriate day, and placed in front of me a pile of paper which was so high that we could not see each other over the top of it. What he had done was to identify, vet and scrutinise all possible suppliers and courses, collate and document the results very thoroughly, and present the whole lot for my perusal. In other words, he had collected together and organised all the information so that I could read it, from scratch, and decide what to do, and it would probably take me at least a month just to read it. This is how he had been required to work by his previous boss. I was far too lazy to cope with this. I said that, after a month's work and all that reading and meeting people, he was now one of the country's leading experts on this kind of training course, and what I really needed him to do was to trim the heap down to what he thought were the best options (and two would be a good number, though three would be acceptable), and make his recommendations, with reasons and costs and all that. I might disagree with him, and I might ask him some tricky questions, and there might be some more stuff to find out, but I had no particular reason to doubt his judgement. I would take the rap if we screwed up, but the most helpful thing would be for him to tell me what he thought we should do.

Otto was dumfounded. His first reaction was that somehow I was shirking my responsibility, but then he was pleased to be trusted, and we got on really well after that. Now I hasten to emphasise that I am not offering this story as an example of my own wisdom or management skill (I was rather too nerdy to be a good manager, I think), but in some ways it typifies for me the difference between having a mass of information available and knowing what to do. Now I come to think about it, this has been something of a recurrent theme in my hooptedoodles over the last year, so I guess I must feel strongly about it.

The Otto effect is everywhere. My SatNav will tell me that I am expected to reach my destination at 11:22am, and exactly how fast I am travelling, but I have no idea where I will be in 5 minutes' time. The internet will retrieve frightening amounts of references - mostly incompetent, of course - for any word I care to type into Google - it is a start, but I still have a lot of work to do to get anything useful out of this, and most of that work consists of rejecting things. If I stay permanently connected to my iPhone it will tell me a few things I need to know and an unspeakable amount of crap, which I do not. Information is useful, but it is not knowledge. Knowledge contains big slices of judgement and understanding. I am very uncomfortable about the zillions of high school kids (and university students, and journalists, and historians) who copy and paste great tracts of someone else's output into their project folder. They are going through the motions. They know nothing, and their teachers, alarmingly, cannot put them straight because increasingly they operate in the same way.

Otto has been automated to nightmare proportions. The internet will happily rush away and retrieve shed-loads of stuff for you, simply by recognising strings of characters embedded in text. How dumb is that? What are you going to do next? If you are going to apply your own judgement to filter this stuff, to what extent will you be relying on skills that you developed before the internet appeared - skills which are beginning to die out?

The relevance to yesterday's posting? Merely that stuffing historical accounts with references is just another example of giving far too much information. No-one is going to check them all out. However painstakingly they have been researched and noted, they are mostly evidence of going through the motions. Otto is alive and well.


  1. Hamilton-Williams could have used more, and he probably actually did, and must rue the day he did his bibliography the way he did. I am very curious about the third volume, that never was.

  2. Hey - Hamilton-Williams! I'd forgotten about him. Great value - I have to say that, dodgy though his books might be, I enjoyed them very much. I think the trick of employing cross-references to your own work is brilliant - really sends up the whole convention. Sadly, Mr HW (whoever he might be) doesn't seem to be too strong on the old humour front, so I guess the joke was lost on him.

    There is a buttocks-clenched customer review of the Waterloo book on Amazon which is one of the funnier things I've seen there - recommended reading. Some powerhouse author from Osprey's mighty stable demonstrating appropriate outrage at a rank outsider taking liberties with the facts as we know them. Great. Handbag Wars.


  3. And, if you are going to reference things, don't make them up...

    1. Benjamin - hi there - before I forget, if you are at all interested in the Bueno books you mentioned yesterday, email me via my Blogger profile - if Blogger profiles aren't working for you at the moment (they aren't for me) it's msfoy at btinternet.com, with the "at" replaced by the usual symbol.

      Phoney references - when I was doing my actuarial exams, I once tried out a bluff in a tutorial paper - I had a feeling the tutor didn't spend a huge amount of time marking the papers, so I suggested in one answer that the problem might be solved "by summation of the standard Heffren-Studholme series", and the tutor gave me a mark for this. There is, of course, no such thing - pure bullshit - and I wouldn't have got away with it in these days of the internet.

      Cheers - Tony