What's a Widget?


About That

What’s a Widget?

“Oh, yuck!” Notta groaned.

I wasn’t offended. Economics was not my favorite unit to teach our students, either. I shrugged. “Remember the last two who passed their Social Studies test? They both said Econ had the most questions. Our cherubs have to learn this stuff.”

“Why?” Notta demanded. “So they can go on CNBC and talk like they know what’s going on when nobody really knows what’s going on? Or run for office as a economy wonk and totally screw up the human element in life?”

“Maybe not, “ I said, “but learning how things are supposed to work might help them make better decisions.”

“With their money or their lives?”

“Yes.” I pretended not to see the sour look Notta offered me.

“Did you study Economics in high school?” she asked.

“College,” I said. “Two semesters for my business minor. That was back in the day when professors used made-up companies making widgets for their examples.”

“What’s a widget?”

“Another one of those crazy terms few people know any more. Although I think it has to do with a computer app nowadays.” Notta groaned. “Anyway, we learned how supply and demand have to balance to equal equilibrium.” Notta rolled her eyes. “How about you?”

She thought for a moment. “We never called it that, but that was in the dim, Dark Ages when high schools still taught Home Economics. That at least was practical: figuring out how to feed a family on a budget; how to sew or at least mend clothes; learning how to cook or at least boil an egg!”

“At least,” I said. That earned me a growl with another sour look.

“We never had to learn all this gobbled-gook like supply and demand, market forces and all those categories of doing business.” She meant what the textbooks called “types of Economies”; capitalism vs. communism, barter and so on. Any business gets more complicated once governments get involved.

“It’s like learning a new language,” I said. “Or building your vocabulary with your own.”

Notta humphed. “That’s what Shrap says when he’s trying to help me do something with that dad-ratted computer. I keep telling him that if computers are so doggone smart, how come they can’t understand plain English?”

“I think we both know too many people who can’t understand – let alone speak – plain English; even those who claim it’s their first language.”

“Don’t go there. You’ll have us back in DC with that subject. We were talking about computers.”

“And why they have a language all their own instead of the Queen’s English?”

“It could be the emperor with not clothes’ English for all I care!” Notta sputtered. “For all the snotty little machine cares, too. And why can’t it simply beep or say, ‘I’m sorry, I cannot fulfill that function because I don’t understand what you want’?”

“They do, in a way,” I said. “They’re called error messages.”

“With a number,” she shot back. “No, ‘you’re doing this wrong’ or at least ‘that’s the wrong key, you idiot’! You have to look up a freakin’ six-digit number to find out you pressed the wrong key. Or the stupid thing kicks you off the Internet or blips out your program and takes its mechanical ball and goes home.”

I believe it is a skill not to laugh when Notta winds herself up into these rants. I try to hear the frustration and consider solutions to offer, but she has a way with a rant that would make stand-up comics foam at the mouth with envy.

“I’m not saying we have to go back to quill and ink or hand-cranked adding machines or even manual typewriters – “

“Don’t go there,” I said. “I learned to type on one of those and my fingers still hurt when I think about it.”

“But is it so hard to come up with a machine that talks your language, instead of you talking its all the time? It’s downright rude, if you ask me.”

“All the more reason to learn the terminology,” I said. “So you and the computer have some common ground to start on.”

“At least,” Notta said, with a look that told me she knew she’d repeated the phrase for a fourth time. I let it go.

“So isn’t that really why we learn vocabulary at all?” I asked. “To know what someone or something else is saying? To better share ideas?”

“Stop right there,” Notta said with a raised hand. “Don’t go getting all philosophical on me about why we’re teaching what we’re teaching. “

“All right,” I said. “Let’s get practical, then. Even if they don’t pursue careers in Economics – capital ‘e’ - our cherubs will deal with economics – small ‘e’ – every day. What they buy or sell or make or grow is all driven by it. Whether jobs are created or eliminated. Who sells what to whom and for how much. Even, G-d forbid, the next stock market crisis will have its roots in economics . It would be nice if they understood what was happening. One or more of our cherubs might even take on fixing things when the economic model breaks down.”

“You’re forgetting human greed,” Notta said. “It’s not just Farmer Freddie has too many apples and Nurse Nettie doesn’t have enough applesauce. They’d be fine, if that’s all there was to it.”

“True,” I said. “That’s where all the rest of the terminology comes in, to understand what other forces affect – really? – Farmer Fred and Nurse Nettie. There’s always going to be someone who doesn’t want to be fair to anyone but him or herself.”

“Some people never learned to share when they were little,” Notta said.

“So to speak, and they don’t want to share now,” I agreed. “It’s in the nature of some of those ‘types of business’ you mentioned that they can get away with it, too. “

“What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours,” Notta said with a sigh.

“The problem arises when they alter it a bit to ‘what’s mine is mine and I want some of yours, too.’ However, if we equip our cherubs with some basic vocabulary and ideas as to how things should work, perhaps that can change.

“Dream on,” Notta said. “Exactly how long do you think they’re going to remember that vocabulary and those ideas?”

“About as long as you remember the computer terminology and procedures,” I said – and ducked a whiteboard eraser.

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