Power to the Edge

Power to the Edge:[A 9MB pdf] A new book by Dave Alberts and Richard Hayes – open sourced in its entirety by CCRP.

This book is truly a must-read for anyone interested in decentralization and the social and organizational relevance of shifting power to the edge, whether in a commercial or a defense context. As you read about the technology enablers of the edge, it’ll become clear why products such as Groove – as COTS enablers of the fully-networked collaborative environment – have such immediate relevance to the defense community.

A debt of gratitude goes to John Stenbit and Lin Wells for catalyzing the creation of this tremendously timely, useful and relevant piece of work. [Ray Ozzie’s Weblog]

Once again, it appears that the U.S. military is moving ahead on figuring out new ways to organize and manage work, while commercial organizations create pale imitations of concepts long since discarded as unworkable.

Crichton on Reason

Crichton on Willy.

The greatest challenge facing mankind is the challenge of distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda.

Although only just now in the blogdex, Crichton’s 3-month-old scathing indictment of the pop-environmentalism movement in… [TeledyN]

I finally got around to this item in my aggregator over the Chrismas holiday. In a speech to the Commonwealth Club in September, Crichton makes an interesting argument that today’s environmental movement is best thought of as a secular religion that operates on the basis of faith instead of evidence.

How will we manage to get environmentalism out of the clutches of religion, and back to a scientific discipline? There’s a simple answer: we must institute far more stringent requirements for what constitutes knowledge in the environmental realm. I am thoroughly sick of politicized so-called facts that simply aren’t true. It isn’t that these “facts” are exaggerations of an underlying truth. Nor is it that certain organizations are spinning their case to present it in the strongest way. Not at all—what more and more groups are doing is putting out is lies, pure and simple. Falsehoods that they know to be false.

I think Crichton is making an even broader argument about the role of reason and evidence in coping with today’s world. Let’s hope he gets heard here as widely as he does with his fiction.

One hot design book

One hot design book. Here’s a new book that’s making the rounds: Universal Principles of Design. Mike dropped by my office a couple days ago to show it to me, after having heard about it from Victor (who heard about it from Adam). The buzz may well be justified. Here’s a blurb from Amazon

Universal Principles of Design is the first comprehensive, cross-disciplinary encyclopedia of design. Richly illustrated and easy to navigate, it pairs clear explanations of every design concept with visual examples of the concepts applied in practice. From the “80/20 rule to chunking, from baby-face bias to Occam’s razor, and from self-similarity to storytelling, every major design concept is defined and illustrated for readers to expand their knowledge.

[IDblog]

Looks fabulous. Ordered.

10,000 Ebooks

10,000 Ebooks.

Here’s something highly cool – a new site (new enough to still be in beta) called 10,000 eBooks has collected together the Project Gutenberg text files of public domain books and converted them to Palm, HTML, PDF, Rocket eBook, iSilo, Doc, Plucker and zTXT formats. iSilo is my format of choice for everything I buy from Fictionwise, so being able to download PG that way is a big plus for me. Since King Lear is on my list of books to read anyway, I’ll download it from here in iSilo format, rather than suffering through the typical ASCII formatted Gutenberg file. I had been considering an ongoing project to read Edward Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire volumes, and I can get all them formatted nicely and read them comfortably on my Handspring in my favorite format. Very nice.

Link found via TeleRead.

[Evil Genius Chronicles]

For those of you who, like me, are ever fearful of being caught with time on your hands and bereft of reading material.

Hacking the Xbox

A (dangerous) primer on hardware hacking. Andrew “bunnie” Huang, whose presentation on hardware hacking at ETCON last month was nothing shy of brilliant, is selling his book, “Hacking the Xbox” online for $24.95 (pre-order now and get it for $19.99!). This, after his publisher backed out of the deal for fear of the DMCA.

This hands-on guide to hacking was cancelled by the original publisher, Wiley, out of fear of DMCA-related lawsuits. Now, “Hacking the Xbox” is brought to you directly by the author, a hacker named “bunnie”. The book begins with a few step-by-step tutorials on hardware modifications that teaches basic hacking techniques as well as essential reverse engineering skills. The book progresses into a discussion of the Xbox security mechanisms and other advanced hacking topics, with an emphasis on educating the readers on the important subjects of computer security and reverse engineering. Hacking the Xbox includes numerous practical guides, such as where to get hacking gear, soldering techniques, debugging tips and an Xbox hardware reference guide.

“Hacking the Xbox” confronts the social and political issues facing today’s hacker. The book introduces readers to the humans behind the hacks through several interviews with master hackers.

“Hacking the Xbox” looks forward and discusses the impact of today’s legal challenges on legitimate reverse engineering activities. The book includes a chapter written by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) about the rights and responsibilities of hackers, and concludes by discussing the latest trends and vulnerabilities in secure PC platforms.

Link Discuss (Thanks, Chris!) [Boing Boing Blog]

Something to order and put in my to read/to learn pile. Taking things apart is still one of the absolute best ways to learn anything. I’m right there with Ed Felten on the importance to intelligent tinkering as one of the fundamental engines of innovation that has driven our economy over time. Dumb ideas like the DMCA are the predictable but ultimately doomed, IMHO, efforts to preserve the status quo for those who once innovated but now prefer to clip coupons and litgate.

Blogs as an ugly term

There seems to be a consensus that ‘weblog’ and ‘blog’ are ugly terms. Many worry that this ugliness adds an element of additional challenge to realizing the value of weblogs within organizations. Recently there’s been some effort to coin more appealing terms.

One of the central features of knowledge based organizations is that individual knowledge workers are the people in the best position to evaluate and design their work. This is a radical departure from industrial-logic organizations where the coordinated design and definition of tasks and jobs is the norm.

Part of the generally disappointing results from centralized efforts at knowledge management follow from this disconnect between organizational logics. Shoshanna Zuboff and her husband James Maxmin have recently published a new book that may shed light on this. It’s titled The Support Economy: Why Corporations are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism. I say may because I am only about a third of the way through it. What Zuboff and Maxmin argue is that the logic of managerial capitalism has run its course and needs to be replaced. Managerial capitalism represents the organizational and economic logic and norms that worked to create mass markets to match up with the production capacity of mass production.It essentially drove much of the economic growth of the 20th century.

From a variety of perspectives, the logic of the emerging knowledge economy is more distributed and decentralized. The work itself requires local perspective and initiative.

What I find interesting is the emerging alignment between several distinct threads. One is this decentralized logic of knowledge based organizaions. The second is the strength of intellectual capital arguments such as the end-to end argument, Dan Isenberg’s notion of stupid networks, and Doc Searls and Dave Weinberger’s most recent piece on the a world of ends. Finally, in this context, we have the application of weblogs inside organizations as a tool to promote knowledge sharing. Here, this alignment of weblogs with these parallel trends suggests that weblogs are a technology well matched to the problem.

Given the match between weblogs and this broader trend toward decentralized and distributed solutions, the lameness of ‘blog’ as a term might actually be one of its primary strengths. It reflects that weblogs are tools coming into organizations from the grassroots, not something imposed from a central source. That may be more important than usual for organizational innovations when we’re talking about an innovation that is in sync with the demands of knowledge economy organizations.

Getting back to stories

I’m off to California for a couple of days. Fortunately, Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magical Kingdom came in yesterday’s care package from Amazon. Now, I’ll have something to read on the flight.

I’ve also just started Steve Dennings’s The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Denning used to be at the World Bank and launched their knowledge management initiatives. He discovered that effective storytelling was a central element in getting from the notion of knowledge management to some actionable organizational change. Not too long ago I got an email from one of my former partners at DiamondCluster reminding me of how I used to used Doc SearlsIt’s the Story Stupid” to anchor my efforts to teach consultants how to find a compelling story buried in their data and analyses. Consultants always want to tell you about all the interesting work they’ve been doing instead of getting to the point. It takes a long time to break them of that habit.

Technology vs. Magic

Like many, I’m fond of quoting Clarke’s 3rd Law that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, ” and, more recently, Benford’s corrollary, “any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.” But I’ve also been troubled by the willingness of most people to accept the magic as magic. I understand the attraction to a marketer to claim magical properties for their wares. It’s the willingness to settle for that explanation that bothers and confuses me.

I’m in the midst of reading The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress by Joel Mokyr. Mokyr is an economic historian at Northwestern who has written extensively on the connections between knowledge, technology, and economics. In a chapter on “Understanding Technological Progress,” he makes the following observation about the differences between technological and magical thinking that offers some insight into my dilemma:

It will not do to dismiss magic as irrational, because rationality is conditional on the information available, and without modern science it was impossible for people to know what worked and what did not. The important difference between technology and magic is not that technology works and magic does not. The difference that matters here is that magic does not control nature, it begs favors from it. Rather than exploiting regularities and natural laws, it seeks exceptions to them by taking advantage of an imaginary capriciousness of the universe. Moreover, technology, if it worked, worked for everyone, whereas magic was confined to qualified practitioners. The sorcerer’s apprentice had no access to his master’s powers. [Mokyr, p. 178]

There is a two-cultures divide here between those who accept magical explanations and those who want to take the black box apart. I run into it in three settings that offer somewhat differing perspectives.

First are the tool users in my immediate cicle of friends and family. They don’t really believe in magic; all they want to do is get on with their own work. Their curiosity is directed elsewhere. The incantations that make email go where it should or get the words from the screen onto the laser printer or the weblog are enough. Understanding how it works might, in some abstract way, be interesting but the practical value of such understanding is a mystery. The practical value lies not in making what I am doing now easier. It lies in making it easy for me to take my existing knowledge into new territory. If the universe is capricious, it is reasonable to expect that my incantations will be different on different days or different machines. If the universe is orderly (at least in some technological parts), I don’t need to learn special incantations. I can rely on orderliness to make educated guesses about what ought to work in the current circumstances.

Second, I run into situations in consulting where either I am the expert or I am working with someone who is there as the expert. One strategy, which I have been guilty of from time to time, is that of “consultant as wizard.” It’s a tempting strategy, especially in new and emerging areas. It’s also a strategy that many clients consciously or unconsciously encourage. Mokyr’s distinctions help me understand how to approach expertise in a more fruitful way. It is not about the content of what you do, it is about the attitude underlying the interaction. Do you believe that the material labeled “expertise” is, in principal, learnable and understandable. If so, then you are doing technology. If not, you are doing magic.

In a consulting project, I suspect that only one of the parties needs to adopt a technological perspective for things to work out. As long as either client or consultant approaches the work as potentially understandable, then it is. This still allows for the existence and value of expertise. There are many reasons why we can’t or shouldn’t be expert in all the things we need to be. But it does matter if we approach expertise as potentially acquirable (as “technology”) or whether we approach it as magic.

This leads to the final area I want to think about; technology vs. magic at a policy level. In this realm, magical thinking is more dangerous because it is harder to overcome from a single side. You cannot hope to untangle the issues around file-sharing networks or DMCA, for example, unless everyone deals with technology as technology and not magic. Ed Felten’s Freedom to Tinker weblog is the best counter-example I can think of. Felten starts with technology as technology and works to explain what is and is not possible from a technology perspective. But that only works for those who are willing to listen and to invest some time in learning. For those who choose to view technology as magic in these debates, pushback from those who view technology as technology (or engineering, I suppose) probably come across as petulant. When we say “I can’t”, they hear “I won’t.” While that might be a reasonable inference when dealing with adolescent children, it isn’t very helpful in a policy debate.

“Impossible” is a slippery word in policy debates or in debates at all for that matter. It’s actually a rhetorical attempt to stop the debate. Debaters generally ignore it or, better yet, look for the weakness in the underlying argument that the use of the word “impossible” is trying to conceal. This gets confusing because in certain technical settings, “impossible” means precisely that. Even the US Patent Office is smart enough to reject applications for perpetual motion devices without review because they violate the second law of thermodynamics. In these collisions between the rhetorical and technological uses of the word “impossible” you end up with lots of wishful thinking but little else. Again, Ed Felten has some excellent thoughts on this, in particular his comments about the “impossibility” of an almost general purpose computer.

Is there a solution to the problem of magical thinking? The current popularity of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings suggests it will be hard. Science fiction author, David Brin offers an excellent essay in Salon on this peculiar relationship we want to have with technology. For me, the day-to-day answer is twofold. One is to look for opportunities to reveal the more interesting reality behind the magic when I’m helping others use the technology. The other is to always try to connect the magic to the makers of magic by making sure that the people who create the tools get credit.