Sturgeon's law and RSS

This is another of those wonderful things you discover in a world where everyone is free to post and publish their passions to the web and bloggers are there to report on their explorations and discoveries.

Sure, Sturgeon's Law still rules; but there's so much more wonderful stuff to be found. As the absolute volume of stuff out there goes up, so does the volume of the 10% that is good (and the 1% that is absolute gold). Add in those intelligent agents that make up my subscriptions and you have the option to fill your own time with that 10 or 1%. Life is good.

TV cliches catalogued. Here's a Wiki cataloguing, with cited examples, all the eye-rolling idiot plots from sitcomdom.

Gilligan Cut
The Gilligan Cut is a classic staple of comedy. A character protests vehemently, “What, you expect me to wear a grass skirt, stand up on top of Empire State Building and belt out the chorus of 'New York, New York'? Well, I'm not gonna… I'm just not gonna…” And then you cut, and see the character doing just that. The Gilligan Cut. Comedy ain't pretty.

Link (Thanks, Gnat!) [Boing Boing]

The Dunbar Number as a Limit to Group Sizes

I've certainly thrown these numbers around myself from time to time (here and here where I get my facts wrong, for example). And I've found them to be valuable heuristics to keep in the back of my mind. It's nice to see that someone has pulled together and organized much of the underlying relevant work. It will be handy to have this available.

The Dunbar Number as a Limit to Group Sizes. Lately I've been noticing the spread of a meme regarding “Dunbar's Number” of 150 that I believe is misunderstanding of his ideas. (post continues with a discussion of Dunbar's Number, the size of groups, some empirical and anecdotal experience with sizes of groups. [Life With Alacrity]

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.

Christensen's Innovator's Solution – 50 Book Challenge

I committed to the 50 book challenge last month. I'm moving along with the reading, now I'm trying to get current with writing about it. Here's the first write up. I'm not quite sure how I'm going to organize this, beyond the posts themselves. We'll see what develops.


The Innovator's Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth
Christensen, Clayton M.

Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma was easily one of the best business books I've read in the past 10 years. The Innovator's Solution is in the same category. I suspect we'll look back in a few years and place this work in the same seminal category that Michael Porter's books on competitive strategy acquired in the 80s.

Christensen's work sytematically addresses the problems I wrestled with in working with Porter's conception of strategy. Porter's work is rooted in classical industrial economic analysis, which by and large focuses on questions of equilibrium. I could never see how to connect that work to the dynamic, technology driven environments I worked in. Christensen addresses that in very powerful ways.

One of the aphorisms I took to heart from The Innovator's Dilemma was “markets that don't exist can't be analyzed.” In this book, Christensen begins to lay out how you can take the notions of disruptive innovation and use them to design a reasonable course of action in the absence of the kind of analytical data strategy consultants desire.

He returns to his original distinction between sustaining and disruptive innovation. As he takes pains to repeat, these are not synonyms for “incremental” and “breakthrough.” Christensen is interested in the market impacts of an innovation, not in its technological pedigree. Regardless of its technological difficulty, an innovation is sustaining if it is designed against the performance criteria of existing customers and markets; particularly the criteria of the most advanced and demanding customers.

Disruptive innovations attack either the lower ends of existing markets where there are customers willing to settle for less performance at less cost, or new markets where a new packaging and design of available technologies creates an alternative to non-consumption. The example I found easiest to understand here was Sony's invention of the portable transistor radio. Compared to vacuum tube radios the first transistor radios were crappy, but good enough for teenagers and others on the go whose alternative was no music at all.

A well concieved disruptive innovation attacks a market that existing competitors would happily abandon (customers who complain that your products are too complex and expensive for their basic needs) or do not see. This keeps you off the radar while you build a market and improve the performance of your product.

Christensen's approach also suggests some counterintuitive approaches to launching innovations intended to be disruptive. In particular, he argues convincingly against trying to get big fast in favor of seeking profitability early on. I need to think some more about that and see how you might account for something like Amazon in his framework. Which would start with deciding whether you would consider Amazon to be a sustaining or a disruptive innovation. I think I could argue either side. Regardless, I suspect that this is a book that like Porters', I will read several more times before I figure it all out.

The spreading virus of IP law

the spreading virus of IP law. So after being battered down again and again, the database bill is back. Congress is again being pressed by IP extremist lobbyists to “solve” the “problem” of “inadequate legal protection” for databases by adding a raft of IP lawyers into the mix. This is an awful law, and were the attention of good people everywhere not focused upon the many awful things happening in DC, it would be dead on arrival. But unfortunately, it lives. PublicKnowledge is doing its part to stop it. Please do something to help stop it again. [Lessig Blog]

Do you ever wonder whether any of our legislators were awake in their Constitutional Law classes?