The newest Berkman Fellow: David Weinberger.

The newest Berkman Fellow: David Weinberger. We're delighted that David Weinberger will be a fellow at the Berkman Center at Harvard Law School this coming academic year.  His writing and leadership on the Internet & Society phenomenon puts him in the top rank of thinkers and do-ers in this space.  Very good news for our community at the Berkman Center.  I have high hopes for our work together. [John Palfrey News]

Congratulations to David. Interesting things continue to happen at the Berkman Center. I'm hoping to get to the next BloggerCon scheduling permitting, even if my name isn't Dave 🙂

No silver bullet

No Silver Bullet.

I’m working on my weekly InfoWorld column (this one will run in print and online on March 8) and I’m referencing an essay from Frederick Brooks (of “Mythical Man-Month” fame) entitled “No Silver Bullet: Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering.”

You just have to read this. I’ve read it many times before and referenced it in a column on web services two years ago, but the essay continues to amaze me. Although it was written eighteen years ago, the content still rings true. Just a sample:

The essence of a software entity is a construct of interlocking concepts: data sets, relationships among data items, algorithms, and invocations of functions. This essence is abstract in that such a conceptual construct is the same under many different representations. It is nonetheless highly precise and richly detailed.

I believe the hard part of building software to be the specification, design, and testing of this conceptual construct, not the labor of representing it and testing the fidelity of the representation. We still make syntax errors, to be sure; but they are fuzz compared with the conceptual errors in most systems.

If this is true, building software will always be hard. There is inherently no silver bullet.

Amen. Be sure to read the rest.

[Chad Dickerson]

A nice reminder from Chad about what is, indeed, one of the best essays on why software is so hard. While it might be a little bit of a stretch for your average knowledge worker who isn’t a software engineer, it’s a worthwhile stretch.

I often think of software engineers and programmers as one of the earliest examples fo modern knowledge workers. You could do worse than to spend some time thinking about how to benefit from what software developers have learned about doing and managing knowledge work. This article from Brooks is one excellent starting point.

Subversive lecturing – coopting social software to promote real learning

Subversive Lecturing: Chat Room or MOO activity. Wonderful! I wish we had the ability to do something like this back when I was in university.


This is a bit of a weird one, it rests on the premise that sitting in a lecture making notes isn’t the best way to learn and that if you are actually able to ask questions, express reactions and participate in conversations about the material being presented while it’s being presented you’ll be more engaged and learn more.

It’s basically an easy way to turn a boring old lecture into a pretty dramatic learning experience.

It can work well in a distance learning setting but you can see it much more effectively if you’ve ever attended an online conference or participated in a conference where participants can chat to each other through wireless technology while listening to presenters.


1. You need to schedule a time that you will be delivering the lecture (for example, using Macrimedia Breeze or perhaps even better, Yahoo messenger – free!)

2. The software you are using may work alongside a chat environment or you may need to create one, for example at (which is eeeasy if you have email addresses)

3. When starting the lecture tell your audience that they should use the chat room to raise questions and have brief discussions relating to what’s being talked about. Stop every ten minutes or so to deal with these questions… you’ll get FAR more questions / ideas and thoughts than you would in a regular lecture.

4. After the lectures finished you can pose a couple of questions, leave the group to continue discussing or participate yourself in a discussion related to the topic.

5. As a reflective tool for your teaching a great great great thing about this is that you can then copy and paste the conversation into Word and save it. All the information gaps and relevant issues to that cohort and a hell of a lot of useful stuff for the next time you cover this will be there! I guarantee it!


[Roland Tanglao’s Weblog]

Roland points to a very well thought through plan for how to integrate instant messaging and weblogs into a conventional lecture based teaching strategy. Better yet, it turns out this leads to wonderful new weblog, incorporated subversion, full of other creative plans and ideas for ways in which multiple social software tools might be blended with conventional teaching and learning strategies. Even better, these plans and ideas are all wonderfully concrete and actionable. A new addition to my subscriptions (RSS feed)

Reducing friction in knowledge work

Marc Orchant picked up on my labeling one of his recommended tools as a “frictioner reducer.” I thought it might be worth taking a few minutes to be a bit more explicit about how I use that term in reference to knowledge work.

Unlike physical processes or information factory processes, knowledge work processes aren't readily susceptible to conventional reengineering/industrial engineering approaches. You can't impose industrial structure and control on these processes without destroying the fluidity and adaptability that characterizes them as knowledge work processes.

That raises the question of what can you do to make those processes more effective and possibly more efficient. I have a series of concepts I use as heuristics to make a knowledge work process better. I find them helpful for my own thinking. I'd be curious to hear whether others find these helpful as well as what else they find useful when attacking knowledge work.

This all grows from my notion that knowledge work is better thought of as craft work rather than factory work and that there is more traction in seeking to improve knowledge work than in grand schemes for knowledge management.

I look at four things when I look at a knowledge work process; friction, visibility, indirection, and granularity. Today, I want to focus on friction; we'll come back to the others in later posts.

In conventional process design work, you look for bottlenecks; places where work backs up. Break the bottleneck and move on to the next one. I think of friction as the things that create bottlenecks or slow knowledge work down. It's a bit more subtle than just focusing on obvious bottlenecks.

Let's start with some examples of some friction reducers I currently take advantage of in my own work.

My preference for using RSS aggregators can be viewed as one example of attacking friction in knowledge work. New items show up in my aggregator soon after they are posted. If there are no new items, nothing shows up. I don't waste time going to sites that have nothing new to see. And for sites that do have new information, I don't have to go through the effort to surf to the site until and unless I want to. Consequently, I can monitor an order of magnitude more material than I can by trying to manage and visit sites via a blogroll.

I've been a long time proponent of ActiveWords because of its ability to attack knowledge work friction in so many ways. Not having to remember a web address or not having to type out words and phrases I use frequently smooths my day. Moreover, I am better off using ActiveWords as a single application than I am in using the various shortcut tools embedded in specific applications. Email signatures are a simple example. I use Outlook for my work related email and Eudora for my personal email (a point of friction I tolerate for other reasons). Instead of defining signatures in each application, I have a set of shortcuts defined in ActiveWords. I can adapt the tools on my PC to my needs, instead of adapting myself to the tools.

Software isn't the only way to attack friction in knowledge work (as often as not software solutions add friction). Good ideas by themselves can help. David Allen's Getting Things Done approach is full of ideas that attack friction. One of his ideas I like best is the notion of to do lists that are organized around the context of where they can be used. Instead of a master to do list that you need to review in depth to find useful next steps, Allen convinced me to segregate the lists by where I could use them; such as a call list I can use anytime I have a few minutes free vs. a list of things I can't do unless I'm at my comptuer. Trade a bit of extra set up time for much less friction in action.

Thinking in terms of friction can be helpful because it lets you identify opportunities for improvement without having to redesign or replace entire processes. I don't need to rethink my entire information scanning process to get benefit out of using RSS and news aggregators.

I'm not sure I have any deep rules to identify friction. It's more a function of tuning in to points of irritation and asking whether there are tools or some simple process steps I might take to reduce or eliminate the friction. It helps to be at least aware enough of what is going on to see ways that you are repeating yourself and to scan the kinds of tools and techniques that others use and promote.

Although the examples I've used all operate for individual knowledge workers, the same mindset applies for groups and teams. Here, organizations are adept at creating all sorts of friction to be attacked. Finding frictions that can be attacked and reduced is easier, although the barriers to reducing friction are much more likely to be institutional than computational.

Dan Bricklin on Clayton Christensen

Clayton Christensen at MIMC. I attended another of MIMC’s Fireside Chats last week. This one was to hear an interview with Clayton Christensen. He’s famous for writing The Innovator’s Dilemma, and is now promoting his new book, The Innovator’s Solution, which I reviewed here on this weblog last October. Great meeting. I’ve written up my notes and added a few pictures. Clayton comments on things from drug research to low-cost airlines to Open Source. [Dan Bricklin’s Log]

Dan Bricklin provides a very meaty summary of Clay Christensen speaking about innovation and strategy during this fireside chat. Helps provide additional insight into Christensen’s books (I just did a review of Innovator’s Solution a few days back). Dan also points to a Fast Company article on Clay’s work from last November, “The Industrialized Revolution.” If you want to understand technology driven strategy you have to spend time understanding what Christensen is saying.

Product warning labels for physicists

Product warning labels for physicists.

Via Tin Man: Product warning labels for physicists. My favorite: Some Quantum Physics Theories Suggest That When the Consumer Is Not Directly Observing This Product, It May Cease to Exist or Will Exist Only in a Vague and Undetermined State.

[Jarrett House North]

I’m partial to

PUBLIC NOTICE AS REQUIRED BY LAW: Any Use of This Product, In Any Manner Whatsoever, Will Increase the Amount of Disorder in the Universe. Although No Liability is Implied Herein, the Consumer Is Warned That This Process Will Ultimately Lead to the Heat Death of the Universe.

although all are good.

Understanding slush, a primer on rejection.

Understanding slush, a primer on rejection. Teresa Nielsen Hayden, an editor at Tor who’s been in publishing for enough time to have developed some very advanced theories on the inner workings of the industry, has published a detailed account of the action on, a site where writers post and complain about the rejection slips they’ve garnered from publishers.

Teresa invites us into the world of the “slushreader” — the editor who goes through the unsolicited manuscripts, deciding which will to have a chance at publication and which will go back to their creators, and then analyses the mental model of this process implicit in the commentary. The disconnect is profound and highly thought-provoking. At the very least, this should be required reading for anyone who aspires to a career in the arts (where the stiff competition from your fellow would-bes gives decision-makers the ultimate buyer’s market).

But even if you don’t want to write or paint or sing for a living, this is important stuff, illustrating the core principles of life in a world where we strive to get busy people to recognize the merit of our contributions.

Herewith, the rough breakdown of manuscript characteristics, from most to least obvious rejections:

1. Author is functionally illiterate.

2. Author has submitted some variety of literature we don’t publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc.

3. Author has a serious neurochemical disorder, puts all important words into capital letters, and would type out to the margins if MSWord would let him.

4. Author is on bad terms with the Muse of Language. Parts of speech are not what they should be. Confusion-of-motion problems inadvertently generate hideous images. Words are supplanted by their similar-sounding cousins: towed the line, deep-seeded, incentiary, reeking havoc, nearly penultimate, dire straights, viscous/vicious.

5. Author can write basic sentences, but not string them together in any way that adds up to paragraphs.

6. Author has a moderate neurochemical disorder and can’t tell when he or she has changed the subject. This greatly facilitates composition, but is hard on comprehension.

7. Author can write passable paragraphs, and has a sufficiently functional plot that readers would notice if you shuffled the chapters into a different order. However, the story and the manner of its telling are alike hackneyed, dull, and pointless.

(At this point, you have eliminated 60-75% of your submissions. Almost all the reading-and-thinking time will be spent on the remaining fraction.)

Link [Boing Boing Blog]

I suppose the notion of a website to whine about rejection letters is inevitable in a culture that has managed to separate the notion of self-esteem from the notion of actual performance. Teresa’s post offers great insight into why “it isn’t personal, it’s just business.”