Moonset from the International Space Station

Moonset, viewed from the Space Station. This NASA website offers a streaming quicktime movie of our moon setting on the horizon, as viewed from the International Space Station. The moon turns into a squashy, pink pancake as it sets, and this science primer explains why. Link to article, Link to movie, Discuss
[Boing Boing Blog]

Something fun to end the day. Appropriate in part because my youngest boy and I are about to start work on a model of the ISS.

Marc Rettig on Interaction Design

Rettig: Interaction Design. A History of Interaction Design, by Marc Rettig. A tour de force that takes you from hand tools to social… [Internet Time Blog]

An excellent review of design. Just to name drop a tiny bit, I've worked with Marc a number of times. I learned a great deal from him about how people and technology interact. We met inj 1996 when Marc was head of design for a start up called Digital Knowledge Assets. DKA was developing software for helping experts share knowledge and that was something we wanted to have at Diamond. In retrospect, I see the work done at DKA as one of the precursors of what evolved into weblogs. Enough namedropping, go read what Marc has to say.

Adding comments to my weblog

I’ve decided to add comments to my blog.

Initially, my purposes in blogging didn’t require comments. My weblog was my backup brain. Later when I started to use it to supplement my teaching, my primary audience was my students and they could either comment in class, use blackboard (which I hate), and use their own blogs (a largely unsuccessful experiment).

As I’ve begun to develop a bit of a small audience, the issue of comments now needs to be revisited. I have reservations about Radio’s default comment system because there is no way to exercise any control over postings. Not that I want to censor so much as I worry about comments getting spammed and inappropriate off-topic comments. I think I now have things almost set up to get what I want. I’ve implemented comments with a “Manila” site that I do have control over should I receive comments that I believe are inappropriate. It also will let me subscribe and track any comments that do get posted.

Over the years, I’ve generally been disappointed by threaded discussion as a tool. I see what ought to be possible, but getting knowledge workers in organizations to develop the skills and norms to realize that potential seems to be awfully hard to do. I haven’t had enough hands on experience with wikis yet to have a strong opinion about where they fit it. Blogs do seem to have some characteristics that contribute to more robust thinking. I’m still trying to parse why I think that and where comments fit into that mix. I guess it’s time to get some primary data.

Springsteen on the Dixie Chicks.

Springsteen on the Dixie Chicks

Here’s a courageous statement from Bruce Springsteen on the plight of the Dixie Chucks, who are suffering boycotts of their work by the pro-war jingoists (including faux-patriotic corporate interests) throughout the land:

The Dixie Chicks have taken a big hit lately for exercising their basic right to express themselves. To me, they’re terrific American artists expressing American values by using their American right to free speech. For them to be banished wholesale from radio stations, and even entire radio networks, for speaking out is un-American. The pressure coming from the government and big business to enforce conformity of thought concerning the war and politics goes against everything that this country is about – namely freedom. Right now, we are supposedly fighting to create freedom in Iraq, at the same time that some are trying to intimidate and punish people for using that same freedom here at home. I don’t know what happens next, but I do want to add my voice to those who think that the Dixie Chicks are getting a raw deal, and an un-American one to boot. I send them my support.

Bruce Springsteen

[from JD Lassica’s New Media Musings ]

Good to see that some people get the basic premise of free speech. If you don’t like or agree with what they say, say something else in rebuttal. But don’t engage in forms of attempted censorship. The whole point of free speech is to permit ideas that the majority don’t agree with to be heard. Guess it’s time to buy some Dixie Chicks CDs. Too bad most of the money won’t get to them, but that’s another story.

Weblogs in organizations and finding voice

An interesting little piece in Business 2.0 about corporate use of weblogs

Business 2.0 – Web Article – Management by Blog?

Most of the companies I've observed using blogs are trying it on their customers before unleashing it internally on their staffs. The external need, apparently, is more pressing. Many businesses already have other systems in place for managing internal information, ranging from simple brown-bag lunches to overkill knowledge-management regimens.

I disagree that the external need is more pressing. I suspect that the truth is that the external weblog strategy presents less risk in the eyes of the implementer. Or to put it differently, internal weblog experiments feel risky.

Even if they're about knowledge management and not cats, good weblogs are personal.  They are an outlet for personal voice. Organizations aren't sure how to deal with personal voice and most of us have learned a healthy caution about expressing it inside our organizations.  I've come to believe that organizations that wish to survive will have to learn how to let organizational voice emerge from blending the unique voices of its members. A necessary step in getting to that harmony will be to help individuals find their own voices first.

Weblogs provide a tool to find, exercise, and develop your voice in a potentially manageable way. You can start by adding grace notes to what others are saying and gradually build to more extensive contributions. The chronological structure of short posts encourages and gently forces continuing practice. And plugging into a piece of the weblogging community gives you a support group who provide examples of their own voice, material to try harmonizing with, and encouragement and support to newcomers.

Helping weblogs to succeed inside organizations has little to do with technology features.  It depends instead on nurturing a grassroots process of tentative practice evolving into confident process. Think Harold Hill in The Music Man not General George Patton in Patton

knowledge work improvement – black box, white box, and deliverables

I've talked before about Peter Drucker's recent thinking about how to improve the productivity of knowledge work. Productivity improvement is driven by a process of observing how work gets done and rethinking, redesigning, and tweaking the process so that fewer inputs and less effort go into producing the same quantity of output.

Essential to that improvement is the ability to define outputs and inputs precisely and to observe the transformation process carefully. Ideally you treat a task as a white box that you open up and play with. A fallback, and less effective, approach, when the process is hard to observe, is possible if you can still observe the outputs. You treat the process as a black box and constrain inputs or tighten cycle time standards. As long as you can observe the outputs and measure them with some accuracy, you can get some degree of productivity improvement simply out of being demanding.

As weak a management strategy as this may be, it can work tolerably as long as you can agree on how to measure the outputs. Unfortunately, it fails utterly as a management strategy when the outputs are difficult to characterize – i.e. for most of knowledge work. The most typical alternative strategy doesn't help. That is to shift focus from measuring outputs to measuring inputs. If you can't observe the process to improve it, and you can't figure out how to assess the outputs, you measure and manage the inputs.

Conceptually, if you can't measure the outputs you can't measure productivity. This leads to such common management nonsense as rewarding people on how many hours of unpaid overtime they put it or what time they show up in the morning and leave at night. This is marginally defensible if you convince yourself that everyone is producting widgets of roughly equal quality. It seems pretty suspect when you apply it to knowledge work.

This issue becomes more pertinent as the percentage of people in organizations who are knowledge workers grows. When only a handful of your workforce are knowledge workers, you don't truly care about their productivity. To the extent that you do, you can make qualitative judgments about whether the outputs produced are acceptable.

There is an old tale, probably apochryphal, of Tom Watson at IBM. Showing a fellow CEO around the office, they came across a staffer with his shoes off and feet up on the desk doing nothing. Watson's guest was outraged and asked why Watson didn't fire the slacker on the spot (although I wonder what term he used in place slacker). Watson's answer? “The last idea he had saved IBM $50 million; I'm waiting for the next one.”

As enlightened a management response as that may be, it isn't one that scales very well. You need a more systematic approach when substantial numbers of your organization are expected to produce and deliver money saving or money making ideas. Part of this will require us to begin looking at knowledge work as an improvable process.

Knowledge work as a process

Basic knowledge work process

The managerial job in this process is in the last step “Evaluate and Assess.” But it's not done by standardizing the work products/deliverables. By definition the outputs of knowledge work are unique. That's what makes them knowledge work. If they can be standardized, then we're talking about factory work, and we already know how to improve that.

One route to a solution is to look at how professional services firms have tackled the problem. I'm not talking about their generally disappointing first generation efforts at knowledge management. Instead I'm talking about something so ingrained in consulting firms that we've lost sight of what an innovation it was — the deliverable.

I've begun to entertain the hypothesis that the deliverable is one of the lasting contributions of the consulting profession. Not the bound powerpoint presentation gathering dust on the shelf. But the concept of turning a knowledge work process into some kind of visible result that can be inspected. Once you have something you can inspect, you have something you can begin to manage.

The mistake that gets made is to try to immediately force this into an industrial model. Yes, we can now inspect the result, but we still know very little about its quality. We listen to stale management maxims like “if you can't measure it, you can't manage it” and immediately start counting things because we can, not because it makes any sense. This is a good time to bear in mind Einstein's observation that “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

There's plenty of mileage to be gained from some careful observation before we get wrapped up in statistics. The first distinction about knowledge work deliverables as opposed to widgets is that the quality of deliverables is always negotiated and constructed. If the client isn't happy with the 100-page powerpoint presentation, it isn't done. If the first three pages answer the question, it is and the remaining 97 are irrelevant.

One of the unfortunate side effects of the various productivity tools made available to us over the past 20 years is that it has become easy to produce what used to be useful indicators of quality (professional type, color diagrams, fancy bindings) without necessarily producing the actual quality. One option is to put your trust in reputation. Certainly, some consultants have raised that to an art form. A better, but more difficult, option is to spend some actual time reviewing the content. If you do take that tack, you'll find that you want to do that reviewing, evaluating, and negotiating of quality along the way. Otherwise you increase the risk of wasting a lot of expensive time and effort producing the wrong thing.

The challenge here is not simply the change this entails in management style, but also the change it entails in the knowledge worker. If I am producing a deliverable whose quality must be negotiated with the client, I have to take the quite real risk of sharing my thinking before it is complete.

These can be hard habits to break. We're accustomed to providing and evaluating the “right answer.” Putting an incomplete and still evolving hypothesis out there is risky. Trying to help someone shape that hypothesis into a better one without doing the work yourself is equally hard and frustrating. It's so much easier to shove the process into a binary one – done/not done.

Weblogs are one useful tool in making this negotiation of quality easier. The format makes it easier to develop ideas in what feel like more manageable chunks.

Engelbart documentary

Doug Engelbart Documentary Website.

Have you ever used a mouse? Have you followed a link on a web page? Sent an email? Used a window on a computer? Used video teleconferencing? Then you live in Doug's world.

Back in November I posted some links to videos of Doug Engelbart's incredible work in the 1960s with technologies that I wouldn't use daily almost for another 3 decades: the mouse, windows, networking, email and more. It was awe-inspiring to see video of the birth of these literally world-changing technologies. Really incredible stuff.

There's a new website called Doug Engelbart's Invisible Revolution which has been created to track the progress on a new documentary about Doug and his effect on the computer industry (world?) as we know it. As they're planning on interviews with just about everyone in Silicon Valley, they're blogging about it (!) and putting clips online for viewing. Pretty rocking if you ask me. Right now, in addition to Doug himself there's also a clip from our favorite SmartMobber, Howard Rheingold who met Engelbart 20 years ago while writing Tools For Thought. Very cool stuff…

In addition to the neat stuff about Doug we're learning on the site (that he's still around and still interested in everything) you get to see a little behind-the-scenes about the process of making a documentary. I don't know if all documentaries are made this way, but its quite the shoe-string operation with the producers doing a lot of their work in Starbucks. 😉 Having gone to college New Hampshire and knowing several people who interned for Kevin Burns before he was the PBS superstar we all know now, I've got a general idea of what it's like (it's not Hollywood). This site is pretty interesting, if just for that.

Check it out… hopefully they'll put up a PayPal link or something up so we can help make sure the documentary sees the light of day, hey?



[Russell Beattie Notebook]

Not only are we still feeding off the seminal work of Engelbart, we're still barely learning to listen to his deeper message, which was that we need to invest not only in the tools but in learning how to use them to good effect. Engelbart assumed that it would take time and effort to learn how to think better with these tools. That's certainly not a message we're going to hear from software marketers.

My wife is a photographer. If you want to piss her off, here's what to do. After admiring one of her pictures, ask her what kind of camera she uses. It's along the same lines as asking a writer what kind of pencil they use or what kind of keyboard.

Tools are important, but investing in learning how to take advantage of the tools is more important. There are two critical elements of in this learning. One of these is time, the other is play. Both are hard to come by in today's work environment.

Learning to learn

Changed approach.

I changed my strategy for advocating weblogs in my local educational setting: Each member of the group is supposed to run his own weblog and the group weblogs aggregate and form intersections.

The immediate response from one student: »I don't see a need for that.«. Why is it that some people see the immediate appeal of it while others think it is pure overhead? There seems to be conflicting mental models about the whole weblogging hype. [Oliver Wrede]

I don't think this only about “conflicting models about the whole weblogging hype.” This issue runs much deeper.

Over the years I have come to the conclusion that many people are disabled by their fundamental epistomological believes. It's the way they think about learning, knowledge, skill, growth, teaching, knowing, change, evaluation, truth, … which is preventing them to take an active role of a designer, constructor, producer, tinkerer, scientist (in the more general sense it was used by the psychologist George Kelly). Let me throw in a citation from the writing of the British psychologists Thomas & Harri-Augstein:

In constructing and validating their views, people develop their own 'personal myths'. We introduce this term to designate the 'personal knowing' that results from enduring long-term conversational encounters. The term 'myth' is meant to carry all its positive, negative, allegorical and transcendental implications. There is a vast range of viable personal myths that can be developed around any topic.

If people believe that “real learning” is only taking place when an educational authority is telling them about established truths you could put all kinds of polished technological and conceptual tools in front of them and they would still come up with good excuses why things are not working for them. You will hear stuff like: “This takes too long. I don't have the time to carry this out on a regular basis,” “the interface is too difficult,” “I don't feel comfortable sharing my ongoing work with others,” “just tell me what I need to know”… and so forth. While some people (mostly enablers, facilitators, …) then continue to search for the holy grail of tools we would probably require interventions and support techniques that are closer to counselling and therapy than much, much better interfaces and tool performance.

Again, Harri-Augstein & Thomas remind us

We cannot change our personal myths overnight, nor should we; but we accepting the relativity of personal meaning, we can purposefully and self-critically bring these myths into greater awareness.

I believe that most (experimental) educational research fails to acknowledge this important issue into account. Talking about a similar topic Brian Lamb summed this up in the following words:

But the gentle introduction has its own practical pitfall: it doesn’t deliver particularly impressive results in the short term, potentially undermining the prospects of securing sustained project funding.

Needless to say that the same dilemma can be found in countless corporate environments, too. [Sebastian Fiedler]

[Seblogging News]

This is a spot on analysis. And yes, it certainly occurs in corporate environments as well. I don't know what it is that leaves so many passive when it comes to the question of taking control of learning. I'd like to hope that that is not the intent of most real teachers, although there are certainly plenty who can be more concerned about demonstrating their expertise rather than enabling others to learn for themselves.

This is one of the reasons that I've always been more drawn to B students than A students. In most environments, A students get wrapped up in trying to figure out what the professor wants to hear. The right kind of B student is willing to trust their own interpretations.

The structural problem is educational settings modeled on industrial lines, which measure a peculiar kind of productivity. This creates and perpetuates an environment of experts with secret insights to be learned. Better to create an environment where all are experts and learners at the same time. As a learner, I want to have a way to tap into experts, who might be anyone who knows more than I do right now and is willing to provide some pointers. As an expert, I want to have other learners around who help me explicate my expertise by asking questions I've forgotten and seeing problems I no longer see.

Three people come to mind who've helped me in my journey as a learner. One was the late Donald Schon and his work on reflective practice (The Reflective Practitioner, Educating the Reflective Practitioner), Tim Gallwey and his work on the Inner Game (The Inner Game of Work), and Ellen Langer's work on mindfulness (Mindfulness, The Power of Mindful Learning).

The Buffalo theory

The Buffalo Theory. I’m gonna go have a six-pack.

The Buffalo Theory As explained by Cliff Clavin, of Cheers. One afternoon at Cheers, Cliff Clavin was explaining the Buffalo Theory to his buddy Norm. Here’s how it went:

    “Well ya see, Norm, it’s like this… A herd of buffalo can only move as fast as the slowest buffalo. And when the herd is hunted, it is the slowest and Weakest ones at the back that are killed first. This natural selection is good for the herd as a whole, because the general speed and health of the whole group keeps improving by the regular killing of the weakest members. “In much the same way, the human brain can only operate as fast as the slowest brain cells. Excessive intake of alcohol, as we know, kills brain cells. But naturally, it attacks The slowest and weakest brain cells first. In this way, regular consumption of beer eliminates the weaker brain cells, making the Brain a faster and more efficient machine. That’s why you always feel smarter after a few beers.”

[ || Andy’s World] [Ye Olde Phart]


Now I really regret giving up drinking :)!