Viridian design

Viridian books.

Former colleague Paul Beard to made reference to “Viridian Design.” I haven’t really groked what that means yet, but I did found a list of Viridian recommended books. There are some very interesting titles on that list; if these books are related to the Viridian movement, I’ll have pay more attention to it.

[Paul Holbrook’s Radio Weblog]

Any movement launched by the likes of Bruce Sterling is worth paying attention to for entertainment value alone. Beneath the entertainment, however, are some deep thoughts about what kind of future we need to be about creating for ourselves. Some excerpts from the Virdian Manifesto of January 3, 2000

What is culturally required at the dawn of the new millennium is a genuine avant-garde, in the sense of a cultural elite with an advanced sensibility not yet shared by most people, who are creating a new awareness requiring a new mode of life. The task of this avant-garde is to design a stable and sustainable physical economy in which the wealthy and powerful will prefer to live.

The task at hand is therefore basically an act of social engineering. Society must become Green, and it must be a variety of Green that society will eagerly consume. What is required is not a natural Green, or a spiritual Green, or a primitivist Green, or a blood-and-soil romantic Green…The world needs a new, unnatural, seductive, mediated, glamorous Green. A Viridian Green, if you will.

The current industrial base is outmoded, crass and nasty, but this is not yet entirely obvious. Scolding it and brandishing the stick is just part of the approach. Proving it requires the construction of an alternative twenty-first century industrial base which seems elegant, beautiful and refined. This effort should not be portrayed as appropriate, frugal, and sensible, even if it is. It must be perceived as glamorous and visionary. It will be very good if this new industrial base actually functions, but it will work best if it is spectacularly novel and beautiful. If it is accepted, it can be made to work; if it is not accepted, it will never have a chance to work.

An excellent example of Alan Kay’s dictum that the “best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Does knowledge management imply digital?

KM Irony. I find this ironic: I’m sitting next to a woman who is writing copius notes on letterhead with the title: “Office of Knowledge Management.” I wonder if she meticulously files those notes in a government issue SteelCase filing cabinet? [Windley’s Enterprise Computing Weblog]

I don’t find this terribly ironic. I find that taking notes by hand is still the most effective way for me to take in information in meetings and interviews. I’ve tried taping but that just leaves me with the problem of transcribing or of listening to the interview twice. Even with a good outliner, I can’t really pay attention and type and the same time (although I am essentially a touch typist). There is something about the mechanical act of keying that takes enough more brain cells than scribbling notes by hand that it interferes too much.

My practice is to keep a spiral-bound notebook with me for notetaking in interviews and meetings. I also use those notebooks (I have a collection going back to 1986) to sketch out diagrams and mindmaps. In the early stages of noodling around with new ideas I still prefer pen and paper.

Back in my Ph.D. research days I started a habit of writing up interviews and notes as trip reports. I have Jim Cash to thank for that.  They used to be done as Word documents. Later I started filing them as entries in a private weblog that I maintain on my laptop (using “Radio” and “Manila”). Diagrams generally turn into Visio documents. Recently I’ve started using MindManager to create machine-readable versions of the mindmaps I draw.

I’ve experimented with scanning my handwritten notes so that they are potentially easily at hand when I travel. I haven’t gotten as diligent about it as Gordon Bell has however.

For times when I can’t carry a notebook with me, I generally have a collection of blank notecards (about the size of a business card) and a pen in my pocket. But I’m not above jotting ideas down on the back of a program or agenda or on hotel notepads. This habit has gotten me in trouble from time to time.

More often than note, the first glimmerings of ideas from me take analog form. They soon get transformed into bits. Maybe Scoble’s peans to the Tablet PC will convince me to start the bit collection one step earlier.


Connecting weblog conversations

Some standards matter…. As I’m more and more seeing my words appear excerpted on other people’s site ( Hi Mark!), I decided to go after another source for related reads: RSS feeds. To participate, you don’t need to use weblogging software that supports trackback or pingback, you simply have to update your templates to have a link to your RSS feed. [Sam Ruby]

Does this mean I don’t have to figure out how to do trackback/pingback in Radio? It’s been on my to do list (albeit very low on that list). Wouldn’t it be lovely to cross it off?

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.

Dave Winer goes to Harvard

Dave Winer goes to Harvard.

Dave Winer’s job hunt was pretty short. This is great news for academia.[Sebastien Paquet]

[Seblogging News]

Let me add my congratulations to “Dave Winer” on his upcoming stint as a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. Plugging Dave into another network ought to lead to some interesting and useful outcomes. I certainly know that I’ve gotten a lot out of hooking into his network (“Scripting News”, “Userland”, “Radio”), however peripherally.

I’ll be particularly interested in seeing how Dave develops his thinking on organizational uses of blogging:

If a weblog is used by a workgroup to keep the members informed, and to connect with other workgroups; and if their feeds are aggregated to inform shareholders, management, regulators, and other interested parties, you might measure the money-making in the form of money saved, or shortcuts found, or new ideas discovered, or blind alleys averted. Weblogs have a place in business that’s as strong as their place in decentralizing news gathering and reporting. [DaveNet]

I hope once he gets to Cambridge that he makes time to take a short walk across the Charles River and pay a visit to the Harvard Business School.

Alien abduction dog tags

Alien abduction dog-tags for humans.  Dogtags for human would-be alien abductees. Parody? Mmmmmm….. could be:

Money back guarantee! Should you ever be abducted by aliens and not returned back to earth, you will be entitled to a full refund… ”

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

Personally I’m planning on being rescued by Mother Thing . She’ll know how to get me home.

I suppose I should download an electronic copy of Cory’s novel in case I get abducted before the copy I ordered from Amazon gets here.

Forward motion and self-organizing networks

Technicolor Blogmap.

An update to the Blogmap Project. Using the same Friendship links data from the Blog Tribe on Ryze, Valdis developed two new maps. The first map shows the Tribe’s network within Ryze with Tribe Members colored in magenta and non-members in blue. This differentiation makes clearer the size and linkages of the actual tribe.

Maps are great at revealing where you are. Combined with the whitepaper’s framework, it reveals that while the network has gained some strength through the centralized communication facilitated, it lacks redundancy and wider contribution. Recall that the community is only 2 months old and it is one without a specific organizing principle except the common interest of blogging, and one could say the progress has been fantastic, when measured by membership growth and linkage structures. But that image still disturbs me.

[Ross Mayfield’s Weblog]

More interesting data and analysis from Ross and Valdis. Ross expersses a bit of concern at his central positioning but none of this would be happening without his energy and commitment to the experiment. Something to remember in all this talk about networks and self-organizing systems.

There may not be a visible hierarchy but the energy still has to come from somewhere. Someone has to be the spark and put enough energy into the system for it to become self-sustaining and self-organizing. Here it’s started with Ross. He’s doing it in a way that is engaging the rest of us (witness his recent effort to promote a blog-buddy system at Ryze).

So, don’t just take a look at what Ross is up to, but get involved! Add to the forward motion .

Learning versus schooling

Beyond Couch Potatoes.

Beyond “Couch Potatoes”: From Consumers to Designers and Active Contributors by Gerhard Fischer

The fundamental challenge for computational media is to contribute to the invention and design of cultures in which humans can express themselves and engage in personally meaningful activities. Cultures are substantially defined by their media and tools for thinking, working, learning, and collaborating. New media change (1) the structure and contents of our interests; (2) the nature of our cognitive and collaborative tools; and, (3) the social environment in which thoughts originate and evolve, and mindsets develop.

Unfortunately, a large number of new media are designed from the perspective of seeing and treating humans primarily as consumers. In personally meaningful activities, the possibility for humans to be and to act as designers (in cases in which they desire to do so) should be accessible not only to a small group of “high-tech scribes,” but rather to all interested individuals and groups. While the core message of the article applies to cultures, mindsets, media, technologies, and educational systems in general, my examples are mostly drawn from computational media, and more specifically from human computer interaction as a particular domain. [Gerhard Fischer] [via David Carter-Tod]

Gerhard Fischer is associate director of the Center for Lifelong Learning and Design (L3D) at University of Colorado at Boulder. This group is doing very interesting projects. I have been following their publications since 1999. Fischer’s focus is on “computational support of self-directed learning”. If I remember correctly I came across Frontier and Manila because of a project that was carried out by the group of Gerhard Fischer. I think it was called DynaSites… or something like that. So, if I wanted to create a BlogTree for my Weblogs, I would have to put the Center for Lifelong Learning and Design (L3D) right on the top. [Sebastian Fiedler]

[Seblogging News]

Following the bread crumbs back to L3D, I started poking around. Looks like a great new resource.

In one of Fischer’s presentations I discovered the following bit of negative feedback from an anonymous student:

I will not ever take a course of this nature again in my undergraduate career, and I hope to find a more structured graduate program with an adviser that is more forthcoming. I will reinforce my strengths by continuing to study in the method that I have developed over the past 15 years. I will redirect my weaknesses by avoiding unstructured class environments.

First, kudos to Fischer for sharing both positive and negative reactions to his work. More importantly, however, I wanted to react to the assumptions reflected in this bit of anonymous complaint because it’s symptomatic of an important distinction between schools and learning that’s caused me trouble as I’ve increasingly focused on the latter.

The more I learn about learning the more I discover how little most school and formal teaching/training environments are organized to promote learning. This isn’t new news, of course (see John Taylor Gatto’s or Roger Schank’s work for particularly strong views against formal education environments, for example). On the other hand, this news isn’t especially widespread. The “average” citizen may care about good schools, but hasn’t thought very much about how schools and learning connect. When and if they do, they seem to end up asking for some idealized vision of what they think school was like when they were in it.

DIGRESSION: When I was at Diamond, I helped create the training function there. I worked with Roger Schank and also with Tim Gallwey of Inner Game fame. I had Tim present his work at one of our All Hands meetings and he asked the group of about 300 at the time to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being highest) on how expert they felt they were about learning. The group average was about 7, I gave myself a 4, and Tim rated himself a 3.

I try to think in terms of setting up conditions that will contribute to better learning. That often leads to doing things that don’t look much like conventional classes or lectures and may not look like I’m doing very much in the mix. In the short term, this leads to reactions like the ones Fischer reports above. If you do it right, however, and can stay with it, you do have people coming back to you later to thank you. On the other hand, it is a very high risk strategy in most environments. Far easier to give the customers what they think they want.

I’m not making claims that I have this all figured out yet. Tenure isn’t the answer because by the time you’ve worked the system to that point, you’re likely to have forgotten what’s wrong with the system. If you’re lucky you land in one of the handful of institutions that get it and support it. One of the wonderful things about the blogging world is how it helps connect you to a larger universe of folks who are more interested in learning than schooling.

Weblogs and comments

Flamers and Weblog Comments. Nick Denton: Comments and Communities. One day, everybody will have a weblog, and a place to comment, and indexing systems… [Dan Gillmor’s eJournal]

More from Denton:

…this is the way to deal with flamers: let them post on their own damn sites. And then let everyone else ignore them. Weblogs are a gigantic interlinked discussion forum, in which it’s trivially easy to route around idiots.

I’ve been mulling over whether to enable comments on this site for some time. I’ve always found discussion groups disappointing, not just because of these who feel compelled to flame, but also for the choppy nature of the interaction. I’ve been much happier with the periodic cross-blog conversations that I’ve participated in. For now, that means no comments here.

I’m open to being convinced otherwise. If you do have an opinion and you don’t have a weblog, feel free to drop me a line Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog..