Understanding and explaining the magic

Skokie Benefit Rehearsal 2003The place where technology, organizations, and people come together has been a continuing focus of my work. That interest was birthed in stories of the wonders and dangers of fantastic new inventions. Like a lot of future scientists and engineers I was raised on the stories of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C . Clarke, and Robert Heinlein.

Somewhere in my early, unsupervised, reading I encountered Arthur C. Clarke’s “Profiles of the Future,” long before I was mature enough to grasp much of it. I’ve since returned to it multiple times over the years. One thing stuck from the earliest, Clarke’s Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

That notion gestated in the back of my mind as two strands played out. First, I encountered and learned about technology in multiple manifestations; mathematics, physics, carpentry, programming, electricity.

Second, I created magic in the form of live theater. Group effort focused on creating illusions that touched the heart observed from a spot where all the illusion was exposed. It’s an odd experience to watch a singer bring an audience to tears while listening for the key change that is the cue to dim the lights and adjust their color; all of which reinforces her voice  and triggers those tears night after night.

Where this has taken me is showing people that the magic is understandable. Revealing the technology that creates the magic gives people power to create their own magic and power lets you solve problems.

There is a moral question of whether you hoard or distribute power. I land on the distributing side; the problems we face need all the power we can collectively muster. Hoarding crimps the flow of total power we need.

You transform magic into technology in stages. The first is to shift perspective and take people behind the scenes. That involves telling the story twice; once from the magic side and again from the technology side. Next, you break down the experience into its component parts and reveal the seams. Finally, you help people learn to create and assemble their own designed experiences.

The venue for this transformation can take multiple forms. It can be as simple as a telling of the tale from the right perspective. Or, it can be a guided tour. With enough time and resources, the best choice can be a “build your own” experience with a veteran guide at your side.

Goals and journeys

Saints John and James Church - FergusonMy dad is 96. He’s never been a big talker, but there is one story that I’ve often retold. It wasn’t one that I learned until I was probably in my thirties.

Dad served in the Navy during WWII. He had to cheat on his pre-induction physical because of his eyesight; he memorized the eye chart while standing in line. He ended up stationed in San Diego, pretty much as far away from his home in Delaware as you could get and still be in the country.

After the war, Dad went back East and got a degree in mechanical engineering on the GI Bill. In 1950, he packed himself into his car and started west to return to San Diego. If you’ve seen both Wilmington, Delaware and San Diego, you can understand the attraction.

Around about St. Louis, he ran out of money, found a job, and started going to the local parish church, while saving up to resume his journey. One Sunday after Mass, he asked the parish priest if there were any nice Catholic girls he might get to know. It turned out to be seven children and nearly forty years before he finished that trip to San Diego.

Goals are important. They set you on your way. But, what you learn on the journey is equally important. It’s trite. I know. I don’t like trite. But I need to be reminded that it is the shared human experience underneath the trite that is important. I am distracted by bright, shiny, objects all of the time. For me, this story is a reminder and a warning to worry less about the particulars of my plans and keep the human goals top of the list.

UPDATE: With the help of some of my cousins, I was able to track down a photo of the church where Mom and Dad were married, Saints John and James Catholic Church in Ferguson.

Thirteen years

Still holding down this outpost on the web. My life and the world seem to have gotten more complex over that interval. When I started this, Facebook, Twitter, etc. did not exist. A few pioneers like Dave Winer seemed to have it well in hand and I felt as though I was late to the game. Guess that was a bit naive. 

This has been a source of continuing learning and a entree to a richer network than I would have ever imagined. More than reason enough to keep the experiment running.

Knowledge is a sobering thing

I sometimes wonder whether the thing that scares people about knowledge and science is how it can make you feel small and insignificant. This image is a visualization of the newest knowledge about where we on Earth fit in the universe. They’re calling it “Laniakea.”

It’s a very long way from when we thought that the Sun revolved around the Earth. For me, it engenders a sense of awe; what reaction does it trigger for you?


The video walks through the data analysis process that went into establishing our extended universal address. It’s a good example of Big Data and analytics at work. 

If you’re interested there are several good articles discussing this work:

Our Place in the Universe: Welcome to Laniakea

This is the most detailed map yet of our place in the universe

Twelve years at McGee’s Musings

Still here. Not so many posts here over the past twelve months.

Working on making that change.

When I started this, blogs were pretty much the only way to share your thinking. A lot more choices today, although of late the emphasis seems to have shifted more toward ‘sharing’ than ‘thinking’. Both make the world a better place; striking the balance isn’t magically easy. 

Two efforts have cut into my capacity to share here. Each is moving into a phase where the balance is shifting to a more even split between thinking and sharing. Each will generate footprints here.

The first was finishing and publishing Think Inside the Box: Discover the Exceptional Business Inside Your Organization (WCG Press, 2013). This was a joint effort with my friend Tim Nelson.

My favorite (i.e. most ego gratifying) bit of feedback so far came from Richard Koch, author of The 80/20 Principle, in a review in the Huffington Post. Here’s what Koch had to say about the book:

I’m really excited! I’ve just stumbled across the best new technique for boosting the performance of any business. And guess what — the method is brilliantly retro. But even trend-setters and worshippers of the new new thing can’t afford to ignore the technique. Quite simply, it’s the best strategic display since the BCG Growth Share Matrix.

Richard Koch, Author of The 80/20 Principle:
review in the Huffington Post  – 08/05/2013

You can learn more about the book and the work behind it at Insidethe8020box.com.

The second effort has been work on developing a business/service concept called Collaborating Minds. It’s an effort to create a hybrid between what we know about large technology-augmented groups and high-performance teams. 

So, stay tuned. 

Eleven Years and Counting at McGee’s Musings

Yesterday marked the eleventh anniversary of the first blog post on McGee’s Musings in 2001.

In two weeks, we’ll practice the American version of democracy, choose a President, revolution will not occur regardless of who wins and, despite the rhetoric, life will go on. We (the U.S. and the rest of the planet) will still face a variety of wicked problems. 

Getting smarter about how we work as individuals, teams, crowds, competitors and the like remains a priority. My efforts in that regard haven’t yet worked their way to visibility here, but they will. Being part of the conversation is important. Listening is half of the process (maybe more). 

As always, my thanks to all of those who’ve been part of the interesting conversations that have taken place over the past year. 

New Year, New Beginnings

Beginner’s Mind.

Mindfulness.

Reflective Practice.

As the New Year gets underway, I’m juggling ideas on how to push forward on several fronts including McGee’s Musings. All have to do with rebalancing the mix of new thinking, ongoing learning, and drawing on experience. They also all have to do with variations on the notion of doing the work and sharing it earlier than my internal critic would like.

Here’s a wonderful quote from Ira Glass of NPR’s This American Life that captures some of this:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Ira Glass

This is drawn from an excellent interview with Glass on the topic of storytelling. Regardless of my experience or expertise in any area, I believe it’s important to keep what’s powerful about “beginner’s mind” and to keep the self-critic at arm’s length.

Another perspective is to do a better job managing the balance between consuming and creating. As an interesting and ironic example of this point, I’ve just spent nearly an hour tracking down a blog post I read the other day on this very point. The post was titled “The Dangerous Effects of Reading” from David Tate’s Certain Effect blog. He makes the following observation:

In our personal lives we tend to optimize for one of two things: input or output. Reading or writing. Consuming or creating. The environment we live in – the prevailing culture – by default is optimized for consumption. Even our personal computers are turning into devices that are optimized for consumption! This is terrible and dangerous.

If the world overwhelms you with its constant production of useless crap which you filter more and more to things that only interest you can I calmly suggest that you just create things that you like and cut out the rest of the world as a middle-man to your happiness?

So my primary goal for this coming year is to create more and to share it. I still will strive to exceed threshold levels of quality, but I’ll set the dial more towards “ship it” than to “make it perfect”. I trust my friends will help me adjust that calibration as we go.