Wednesday, December 31, 2003

It's A Man's Man's Man's World - so far

In a post last week, I gave an extract from Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows in which he dreams about a world in which the East had developed its own science, and hadn't had to make do with the imposition of the West's. (Is there a word for "nostalgia for a future that will never happen"? That's what I read into Tanizaki.) He wrote, "Suppose for instance that we had developed our own physics and chemistry: would not the techniques and industries based on them have taken a different form, would not our myriads of everyday gadgets, our medicines, the products of our industrial art -- would they not have suited our national temper better than they do?"

A couple of days later I heard James Brown singing the lyrics to "It's A Man's Man's Man's World",
You see man made the car
To take us over the road
Man made the train
To carry the heavy load
Man made the electric light
To take as out of the dark
Man made the boat for the water
Like Noah made the ark
This is a man's man's man's world
I wondered what it might be like for women to live in a world made by men. Would not the things in our world have taken on a different form, more suited to their "gender temper", if they had been the builders?

Susan T. has observed that, based on her experience with various Aikido clubs, that the tendency towards endless multiplication of sects and schools is peculiarly male habit. Women who teach martial art don't seem to be so obsessed with setting themselves apart to perpetuate their particular style. This suggests that organizations built by women will have a different structure from those built by men.

We'll soon see: the growing number of women in the workplace, and those the growing number of them in a position to determine organizational structure, provides a way of testing this hypothesis. If it's true, we'll see new ways to structure companies, and eventually, to structure markets. The tell-tale sign will be a rash of management books about "female organizations".

For now, female gains are mostly in the professions, rather than in corporations. This may at least in part be due to the more horizontal power structures in the legal and medical professions, vs. the more hierarchical (male?) organization of large companies. As female pioneers in the corporate world gain power, they may create structures that will attract more women. Since social effects depend non-linearly on the number of participants, we'll probably see an unexpectedly rapid shift in structures once the process takes hold.

We may well see different kinds of technologies, too. While one could argue (with difficulty) that pure science is not socially constructed, the same is not true of technology. Once products are, as a matter of course, made by women and not just for them, we will see a different aesthetic. The stereotype is that men are obsessed with how things work, and women with what things do. If this is any indication, there will be more attention to function and less on performance parameters once the Female Age dawns.

Fallacy of the Day

Encarta points to two great sites on logical fallacies: the Nizkor Project, and Stephen's Guide.

Taking a leaf out of the Samuel Pepys diary-as-blog idea, it would be fun to get this stuff in daily doses, rather than as a big wodge. It's really all about application. As Stephen Downes points out, "The names of the fallacies are for identification purposes only. They are not supposed to be flung around like argumentative broadswords. It is not sufficient to state that an opponent has committed such-and-such a fallacy. And it is not very polite. This Guide is intended to help you in your own thinking, not to help you demolish someone else's argument."

Matching the Fallacies to current events is fun. For example, the claim that the absence of evidence that cellphones cause harm means that they're safe is an Argument from Ignorance. The classic "Have you stopped beating your wife?" is revealed as Complex Question, in which two unrelated claims are joined and one is forced to respond to them as a single proposition. (The two questions in this case are: are you beating your wife, and have you stopped?)

Monday, December 29, 2003

Twenty things you should do in this lifetime

I was tidying my room today and found a full-page newspaper ad that I'd
clipped from the July 9, 1999 Wall Street Journal. It was headlined
"20 THINGS YOU SHOULD DO IN THIS LIFETIME", and listed 19 things. (You had to
turn the page to see a double-page spread picture of the new BMW.)

I marked the ones that made sense to me then:

  1. Ride in a gondola down the Grand Canal in Venice

  2. Teach a class

  3. See the sun rise over the ruins at Machu Picchu

  4. Plant a tree

  5. See an opera at La Scala in Milan

  6. Take a balloon ride (though not necessarily over Serengeti, as the ad

... and I jotted down a few of my own:

  1. Raise a barn

  2. Learn a spell

  3. Spend a night in jail

  4. Live in Spanish

  5. Sleep in a tube hotel in Tokyo (beginning to sound too much like hard
    work - I must be getting old)

  6. Travel the Silk Road to Samarkand

  7. Tell my employer to fuck off (not sure about this one any more; seems

  8. Do something totally irresponsible

  9. Watch the summer solstice sunrise over a stone circle

  10. Kill, clean and roast a deer

That makes sixteen; here are four more that I made up today

  1. Meditate for a week

  2. Sing in a choir

  3. Learn the constellations of the northern sky

  4. Translate Ovid's Metamorphoses

For the record, the ones in the ad that didn't resonate with me were:

  1. Visit the country your ancestors called home (pretty much done - and too
    American, anyway)

  2. Leave a dollar where a kid will find it (too sappy, plus, what can you
    buy for a buck these days)

  3. Fly over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter (too noisy and showy; walking
    is better)

  4. Lend money to a friend without expecting it back (tacky)

  5. Have a suit made by a Saville Row tailor (I'm a cheapskate)

  6. Fly on the Concorde (now moot, and then I couldn't see the point: two
    hours in a metal tube vs. nine... OK, and? See also #5 about the suit.)

  7. Stand on the Great Wall (tempting, but too touristy; Hadrian's Wall
    would be more interesting)

  8. Make your own beer (see "kill deer" above for a more worthwhile

  9. Learn to speak French (I'm working on Spanish, though I'll admit that
    French is the most beautiful language in the world)

  10. Hang up on a lawyer (I like lawyers. Sorry.)

  11. Kiss someone passionately in public (done)

  12. Play the Old Course at St. Andrews (golf is boring)

  13. Shoot the rapids on the Snake River in Idaho (terror is not my idea of
    fun, especially expensive terror)

  14. ... and, of course, the BMW

Saturday, December 27, 2003

Listen Crazy?

In their wonderfully whacky translation of Chuang Tzu, Hamill and Seaton have Mr Tall Wu Tree say to Chu the Magpie, "I'll talk a little crazy to you. See whether you can't listen a little crazy too."

I'm no good at talking crazy; I'm too self-conscious. (Yes, I know, I know; I'm working on it...) But surely I could learn to listen crazy?

I've been struggling for days to figure out how I might listen crazy. I guess I should stop giving authors the benefit of the doubt, trying to make sense of their writing. Instead, I could take nonsense at its face value, get upset, do my best to misunderstand.

I could read between the lines, try to find the sub-text that contradicts what the writer tries to be saying. And I could read it like a paranoiac - the writer is plotting against me, against all that is good and proper, he's trying to subvert me, he's warping my mind with his insidious prose!

Take things to the extreme - exaggerate claims to the point where they no longer seem to make sense.

Susan, of course, had the more general solution when I asked for her help: read as if I had various mental pathologies. Paranoia, sure, as well as neurosis and schizophrenia; read some passages as if manic, others as if depressive.

This presents a good reason to go find out what the various kinds of mental illnesses are. Encarta gives a good list, which I'll use here. (A rip-off, sorry, an unattributed extract, of the Encarta article can be found on

Anxiety disorders: excessive apprehension, worry, and fear. They include phobias, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. When listening crazy in this mode, experience the speaker as threatening your very existence. Fixate on one sentence or phrase. Excessive apprehension, worry, and fear. Excessive apprehension, worry, and fear. Excessive apprehension, worry, and fear. Excessive apprehension, worry, and fear.

Mood disorders, also called affective disorders, create disturbances in a person’s emotional life. Examples include depression, mania, and bipolar disorder. Practice depressive listening by finding proof in what you hear of your worthlessness, and hopelessness of life in general. Practice manic listening by impatiently discovering that everything being said merely demonstrates your innate superiority.

Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders: loss of contact with reality. While standing on one leg and tapping your right buttock with your left hand, imagine that the Voice of God is contradicting everything that is being said, as it is being said.

Personality disorders like low self-esteem or overwhelming narcissism. Since, according to Encarta, "considerable controversy exists over where to draw the distinction between a normal personality and a personality disorder," use this disorder as an excuse to just listen in the way you usually. You're probably pretty crazy even when you're normal, with any luck.

Impulse-control disorders: the inability to control the impulse to engage in harmful behaviour, like stealing, setting fires, gambling, or invading countries who were nasty to your Daddy. When listening to someone, explode in anger at any claim you find in the least threatening or idiotic.

Working through the other major categories is left to advanced listeners as an exercise. (Put another way, I couldn't figure out how to fit them into this story - not to mention that some seem to overlap with ones I've already covered.) Figure out for yourself how to listen with cognitive disorders (e.g., delirium and dementia), dissociative disorders (e.g., amnesia and depersonalization disorder), somatoform disorders (e.g. hypochondria), factitious disorders (e.g., Munchausen syndrome), substance-related disorders, and eating disorders.

Now this is probably not what Mr Tall Wu Tree had in mind - but if so, I'm actually beginning to learn how to listen crazy. Woo hoo! Though just being a geek might not count as being crazy...

Friday, December 26, 2003

Féretros invisibles

Propaganda is sometimes what is not said - or shown.

In her La Opinion column entitled "Invisible caskets", Pilar Marrero points out that in spite of the hundres of US combat deaths in Iraq, not a single coffin has been seen on TV or in print. She ascribes this to the scrupulously observed ban, introduced by George I during the first Gulf War, on photography of bodies arriving at Dover Air Force Base, or of funerals at the National Cemetary at Arlington.

The reason is obvious: the Vietnam legacy of returning body bags.

So is the moral: controlling what is not said is an important part of spin control. Governments have always relied on censorship, though I expect that few Americans would've thought that their government engages in it.

There's a lesson, too, for anyone who cares about their image, which is to say, just about everyone. Being able to block the release of personal information is a source of power. In our digital world, information once released will be duplicated indefinitely. Therefore, be very stingy about sharing any information about yourself. Not only does the data have value, but releases are cumulative: data mining works.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

Lessons from Telegraphy

I've at last got around to reading Tom Standage's delightful 1998 book, "The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers." It's a remarkably instructive read, even though it doesn't dwell as much on telegraphy's bubbles and financial failures as it would've done if it had been written after the dot-com bust.

By nature, I tend to resist claims that today and its technology is somehow different from earlier times, and Standage's book provides ample evidence that continuity and similarity is much more marked that revolution and change.

Telegraphy was arguably the first technology that inspired dreams of tech-driven utopia, notably claims of world peace. A toast was proposed at the celebration of the completion of the 1858 trans-Atlantic cable to "the telegraph wire, the nerve of international life, transmitting knowledge of events, removing causes of misunderstanding, and prompting peace and harmony throughout the world." For comparison, Standage quotes Michael Dertouzos gushing in a 1997 book that the digital networks as a "common bond reached through electronic proximity may help stave off future flare-ups of ethnic hatred and national break-ups." The telegraph didn't seem to help much staving off the Crimean War, the First and Second World Wars, and Korea, let alone Balkan tragedy that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia.

The sociology of both telegraphy and the Internet are remarkably similar: wild-eyed entrepreneurs most of whom lose all their investors' money, a meritocracy of operators who create a newbie-hostile community, and huffy academics who provide a theoretical basis for the technology and spend the later years in a snit that they are being ignored and not sufficiently recognized, and big companies that emerge to monopolize key parts of the business

Old technology often out-performs the new stuff in unexpected ways. Jim Gray has pointed out that the best way to send terabytes around is to ship computers housing inexpensive disks. The same thing happened with Telegraphy. Standage reports that due to line congestion, "Some telegraph companies tried employing additional messenger boys to carry bundles of messages along busy routs from one telegraph station to another -- a distance of only a few hundred yards in many cases. With enough messages in a bundle, this method was quicker than retelegraphing them." This led to development of pneumatic tube message delivery systems: pipes along which tubes carrying paper messages were pulled (eventually pushed) by air pressure.

Any technology will be used for communication, and all communication will be put at the service of, um, romance. The telegraph had its own tradition of on-line romances and long-distance weddings.

Governments will always attempt to control and monitor the flow of information. In recent years we've seen the escrow wars over the Clipper chip; in Victorian times, many governments forbad the use of ciphers by the public.

More interesting for me, because it goes against my nature, is to identify differences between today and yesterday's technologies:

Disintermediation: Most people could only use the telegraph indirectly - one had to use work through a system of messengers and wire operators. Today's network is pretty much directly accessible to anyone with a PC.

Ubiquity: Telegraphy was known by all, but wasn't used on a daily basis by one and all. The Internet is accessible in most middle class homes, and libraries in most developed countries. The technologies to use it -- PC's and phones -- are widely owned.

Globalism: Telegraph networks started in Europe as national systems, and internetwork connections only emerged gradually. The companies that operated the networks, likewise, were national monopolies. Today's monopolies and standards are global, though powerful regions and countries (e.g. Europe vs. Microsoft, and China vs. Wi-Fi and 3G) are doing all they can to resist them.

Most instructive of all, one should ponder the lessons that can be drawn from telegraphy and applied to today's emerging communications technologies.

Expect the usual hype, conflict, and commercialization: see the list of similarities above. Also expect the public to become blasé about the technology remarkably quickly.

In particular, don't expect utopia. The Internet and global web services won't make nationalism go away. The seemingly more global quality of this generation of technology may put its vendors on a more equal footing in conflicts with nation states, but I doubt that pride in the peculiarities of a culture will wash away in a generation. Nationalism and regionalism in Europe, for example, is more marked now than a century ago, the Internet will do as much, and probably more, to foster diversity as to erase it.

Watch out for discontinuities that look like continuities. Telephony emerged from attempts to multiplex more channels onto a single wire -- the "harmonic telegraph". Elisha Gray, who was working on a system very like Alexander Graham Bell's, ignored Bell's telephony patents at first because his lawyers advised him that the phone was a by-product in the race to build a harmonic telegraph. Indeed, Bell's 1876 patent is entitled "Improvements in Telegraphy". Voice over IP looks like just another application that runs on the net, but it may emerge as a distinct technology. Sure, it runs over IP; but both telegraphy and telephony ran over wires.

If there's a community of whackos buzzing around an emerging technology, one of them is sure to get it right sooner or later. You can't tell who it'll be (Morse made his name as a painter), and early success is no guarantee that they'll get it right next time (William Cooke, the British co-inventor of telegraphy, failed in all his subsequent attempts at invention and frittered away his fortune).

The man who can make me read fiction

There are many good reasons to read the Christian Science Monitor; we subscribed in order to get better international coverage than was available in the Big Name US newspapers. There's also it's accesibility: tabloid format, wonderful photography, and concise articles. It's the thinking person's USA Today.

But one of the unexpected delights has been Ron Charles' book reviews. His reviews, usually of novels, reveal the wonders of fiction so well that this confirmed non-fiction reader has often been brought to the point of (gasp!) reading fiction. And even when I don't read the book, his review gives me a sense of what I'm missing -- and slowly wears down my resistance to the emotional stress of reading novels.

I love the wit and passion that Charles brings to a usually stuffy genre. And can he write! Here's the opening paragraph of his piece on "Jesus in America: his changing image" by Stephen Prothero:
The Gospel of John concludes by claiming that if all the things Jesus did were written down, "the world itself could not contain the books that should be written." Unfortunately, the writers of Christmas music seem determined to meet John's challenge. Anyone who's endured the Cajun polka version of "Away in the Manger" knows that the world itself could not - and should not - contain any more of these things.

I'm also constantly impressed by the other reviews that Ron Charles commisions as book editor. The Monitor's Tuesday books section covers a broad range of topics, and each review is as well written as the next. In this week's issue, items include a survey of several new books that illuminate the origins of Christianity's modern diversity (I want to go out and read every single one), and a scathing report on Paul Johnson's latest hyperbolic pontification on art history, from the caves to 2003.

How the other half lives

As the NPR introduction says: "In America, it is possible to work full time but not make a living. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 20 million workers earn less than $9 an hour. At those wage levels, many people have trouble affording the basics -- housing, food, clothing, transportation and health care."

The NPR Special Report Low-Wage America by Noah Adams offers a series of profiles of people scraping by. This is how the other half lives - at least in America.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Too soon old, too late smart

I've been going on a daily morning run for more than ten years. For years I've struggled to take my running shoes off when I get back, especially in winter when my fingers are numb and clumsy.

I figured out a decent solution over the last couple of days. You have to make sure to have the loose ends clear of the know before pulling; then, after pulling the knot open, you keep tugging on the ends to loosen the tie across tongue; finally, grip the tongue and pull it up to loosen the threading before removing your foot.

Ten years it took me?

One could conclude that I'm just a putz. There is a little more to it, perhaps: The fact that insights, major or minor, take an indeterminate amount of time to reveal themselves. Insights can't be scheduled. They can be encouraged, but they'll show up when they're ready. A Simone Weil quote that I've been looking at for a while (from the "Little Zen Calendar 1996" that Kiko Shinoda gave me - yes, I'm in no hurry to tear off each day's saying and move on to the next one):

Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in direct proportion to them will flood the soul.

Also: solutions to problems may just show up even when one isn't looking for them, or even realize consciously that there is a puzzle to be solved. We muddle through the tunnel of routine, not noticing problems as soluble, let alone trying to solve them.

There is so much about the world that could be better, and we just don't know it. I suddenly realized how to take off a pair of trainers - just think of the real problems that need to be solved, let alone the problems that we don't even notice we have.

Solutions probably show up unexpectedly because we ignore problems that don't seem to have solutions. This is a hallowed tradition in academic circles: why work on a problem if you can't get a paper out of it?

On the other hand, artists often take pride in "asking questions" without feeling obligated to propose answers. I would find this pose less aggravating if they occasionally highlighted problems that we didn't already know we had. As it is, the "problems" are invariably old faithfulls like "discrimination" or "the nature of representation" or "violence". Booooooooring! And not helpful...

Finding problems isn't easy, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this entry. Attentiveness, a la Ms. Weil, will help. Forcing oneself to look at the world from novel points of view is also necessary. Douglas Adams's advice for dealing with a Somebody Else's Problem Field applies:

Ford was beginning to behave rather strangely [...] Regardless of the bemused stares it was provoking from his fellow members of the crowd gathered round the pitch, he was waving his hands in sharp movements across his face, ducking down behind some people, leaping up behind others, then standing still and blinking a lot. After a moment or two of this he started to stalk forward slowly and stealthily, wearing a puzzled frown of concentration, like a lepard that is not sure whether it's just seen a half-empty tin of cat food half a mile away across a hot and dusty plain.

So that's my excuse when they come to take me away, and I'm sticking to it.

* I learned the saying "Too soon old, too late smart" from my father. He used to say that he got it from a Jewish friend, but I haven't been able to track down a source. The Omega Faith web site claims it's "an old Dutch saying". There may be something to that; I've also seen it referred to as a Pennsylvania Dutch saying.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

In praise of soft edges

I've been sitting in a well-lit room, in a well-lit house, reading Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows. How superfluous is all the light we live in!

I only really needed some light to illuminate the page. A pool of light would've been sufficient. But the whole house, every room, unseen and unused, is brightly lit. How comforting, to be in this sea of light! Especially in when light means safety, whether for reasons of nature or nurture. Still: is this endless incandescence really necessary, let alone desirable?

I'm suddenly nostalgic for something I've scarcely ever had to live: carrying light with me around in a dark house. We have personal computing, but not personal lighting... Perhaps here is the one reason why fancy home control technology might be worth having: if lights softly sensed my presence, and a smooth pool of light followed as a moved around the house, I would feel more centered in the space. I would have a sense of the spaces moving around me, rather than simply being a unit moving through a machine for living in.

A gradual response would be essential - not sharp ON and OFF. (That's half of the reason why we just leave lights on; the other is that light switches are so often on the wrong side of the room.) Many meeting rooms in modern office buildings have presence sensors, but they are brutally binary: when they have not sensed movement for a while, the lights go simply all switch off in a most disconcerting way. A slow fad to black would be much easier on the nerves.

The same goes for computer displays - screens will suddenly switch off, or pop back from power-save mode. Or take clock radios: the ones I encounter in hotel rooms go from silence to set volume in a sudden crack, fracturing sleep. Or telephones: it's a rare phone that starts ringing softly, and gradually increases its volume if ignored. Sudden movement activates fight/flight responses at the reptilian base of our brains; prompting an unexpected surge of adrenaline isn't a good way for technology to endear itself.

Shadows may not be for everyone, or every culture. However, softer edges between the various states of the technologies that serve us would surely smooth the jagged edges of our lives.

Coping with alien culture

Many years ago, Eric Bear gave me Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows; I was still managing designers then, and he told me that he liked to hand out this book, a personal muse. I treasured this slim paperback mostly for its title, but only started reading it a couple of days ago.

It is so hard to understand what it feels like to be the citizen of an occupied country -- and even harder, to experience the sense of being overtaken by a superior technology -- if one's culture has never been the loser. In a passage describing his difficulties he had integrating Western conveniences into his Japanese home, Tanizaki gives a flavor of this bitter draft.

There are those who hold that to quibble over matters of taste in the basic necessities of life is an extravagance, that as long as a house keeps out the cold and as long as food keeps off starvation, it matters little what they look like. And indeed for even the sternest ascetic the fact remains that a snowy day is cold, and there is no denying the impulse to accept the services of a heater if it happens to be there in front of one, no matter how cruelly its inelegance may shatter the spell of the day.

But it is on occasions like this that I always think how different everything would be if we in the Orient had developed our own science. Suppose for instance that we had developed our own physics and chemistry: would not the techniques and industries based on them have taken a different form, would not our myriads of everyday gadgets, our medicines, the products of our industrial art -- would they not have suited our national temper better than they do? In fact our conception of physics itself, and even the principles of chemistry, would probably differ from that of Westerners; and the facts we are now taught concerning the nature and function of light, electricity, and atoms might well have presented themselves in different form.

On our planet, we don't need superior extra-terrestrials. Uncle Sam does nicely.

A view from Germany

I found another fascinating perspective on America in Die Zeit's photo gallery.

Michael Najjar's images "Information and Apocalypse" are a disconcerting take on the US war and information machine. See, in particular, the Flash animation "too close to see far".

Sunday, December 21, 2003

A lost web

In 1998 I went on a mid-life crisis road trip. I made a web journal of the journey. I tried to find the web recently, and couldn't. My sense of loss was profound. In musicals, people break into song at moments of profound emotion; I try to write poetry.
copied and archived and backed up
so many times
it disappeared

a stand-in for a memorable journey
a trusted pointer
though unvisited

my thoughts drain into its loss
its referent
now unreachable

Democracy in Latin America

In a fascinating interview in El Pais, the Mexican intellectual Enrique Krauze discusses the prospects for liberal democracy in South America.

I found his comments on the US most striking, however. He says, "[C]reo que nosotros hemos estudiado poco EE UU y ellos han estudiado muy poco el mundo. Ellos son un país casi autista. El único país del mundo donde hay un campeonato deportivo nacional, el del béisbol, al que se llama la serie mundial. Es indicativo."

(My translation: "I believe that we have not studied the US carefully enough, and they, likewise, have not learned about the rest of the world. It's almost an autistic country. It's the only country in the world where a national sporting championship, that for baseball, is called a world series. That's indicative.")

He goes on to compare the British with the American empire; for all its defects, abuses and excesses, the British Empire strove to build the foundations for democracy, and today one can see many democracies among its former territories. The opposite happened in America; the US always choose against democracy in Latin America, and always supported dictatorships.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Interpretive art

In an interview with Elvis Mitchell that I heard on NPR today, the actor Ian McKellen said, "... I'm an interpretive artist, not a creative artist."

Perhaps I'm an interpretive artist who dreams of being a creative artist...

Perhaps most of us are. Novelty has always been important; in a knowledge economy where innovation is the source of wealth, it's doubly so. This quote highlights that creating, so critical in an innovation economy, is just one way of being imaginative; interpreting is inspired (i.e., artistic), too.

There are more musicians than composers.
There are more builders than architects.
There are more explainers than inventors.

Without the Kronos Quartet, scores modern composers would be mute.
Without the "finishers", the visions of the "starters" would never be realized.
Without actors, the director's movie won't win an Oscar (or make money).

And the point is: interpreters are not just dumb pipes. They not only complete the work of the creators; they create part of it.

The road trip, found

I thought these bits had evaporated (more on that later), but they've been rescued.

At the end of 1998, on the verge of a mid-life crisis, I drove down the West coast in a rented RV. I documented the trip as a web.

Now that I'm no longer the same person -- five years is a long time -- I can say with not too much hubris that I'm quite impressed. The design has held up pretty well, and I found the content stimulating.

A little depressing, too; not all that much has changed in five years...

Thursday, December 18, 2003

The Julie/Julia Project - RIP

The blog that inspired me to start writing my own has packed it in. I found The Julie/Julia Project through a Christian Monitor story, and it showed me how fascinating it could be to check in with someone's passion every couple of days.

I'll never have Julie's persistence, or writing skill, but she inspired me to try sharing my experiences on-line.

I missed the wake; wouldn't've made it to the East Coast, anyway...
thanks, Julie

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Insight overload

I'm tired of hearing about "information overload".

The claim is that we are being buried in an avalanche of information, unable to find the the nuggets of knowledge hidden in this mountain of data. The implication is that software should help us extract this knowledge from all the data dross.

The real problem is not too much bad information; it's too much good information. There are so many thoughtful insights available to me that my problem is regret at not absorbing all of it, not frustration at not finding "the good stuff". It's therefore more a subjective matter of cognitive capacity as it is a data mining problem that can be solved by software.

I also have an ego problem. Everybody I read seems to be scary smart, or insanely insightful, and I spend more energy fretting about my inadequacy than coming to terms with their insights. I know what I should be doing: standing on the shoulders of these giants, rather than scowling at their kneecaps. (A forest of their kneecaps...) Instead, I'm intimidated by all this wisdom; I resist reading the good stuff because it rubs my face in the fact that my contribution is so meagre.

This is just dumb. So here's my New Year's Resolution:

Set aside as much time to reflect as to read, and then just read as much as time allows. Don't try to read everything - don't even try to read the all the best things.

Don't read for speed. I can't read all of it anyway. If I aim for quantity I'll see lots of words go by, but nothing will sink in. I should pause at the end of reading something to see if I've remembered anything I read. If I can't, I will go back and read it again.

Enjoy great thinking for its own sake. Don't be envious. Treat it like great music, or great art, or great food. It's something that can make my life better. It's a gift - just accept it.

React, form an option. Feel free to disagree. Any response will help clarify what's relevant to me, and what isn't.

Reading is like walking through the mountains. You'd be overwhelmed if you try to take in every individual flower and tree along the path. That's a good thing to do from time to time, but one should also take in the shape of the landscape, and the different kinds of vegetation. Sure, I need to read and reply to certain mails. But there's also value in simply absorbing the rhythm and flow of the mail stream: what's hot, who's talkative, what's not being said.

I feel as if there's a plaque in front of my monitor that says


I need to replace that with the old IBM-issue plaque that says


My life story in 30 seconds

NPR's The Next Big Thing (This American Life meets Arts & Letters Daily) for Friday 12 December had an item on reporter Josh Clafflin's habit of asking anybody he meets: what's your life story - in 30 seconds?

My reply?

"My career goal since the age of twelve had been to win the Nobel prize for physics. That got me to Oxford where I discovered I wasn't smart enough - but there I also met Susan, which was the best of many good things that have happened to me. Since then I've random-walked from one career to another, going from venture capital to art school to software." (20 seconds.)

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Enough with the Revolution, already

Technology companies love to talk about how revolutionary their products are. They can't have given much thought to how bloody and horrible revolutions are: just think about the French and Russian revolutions.

Since so many IT companies are US-based, this usage is probably inspired by the "American Revolution", which is revered in US history. It was more of a war of independence than a revolution, however. The sustained social turmoil and inter-necine violence that characterized the French and Russian revolutions was absent.

As Encarta defines it, a revolution is a forcible, pervasive, and often violent change of a social or political order by a sizable segment of a country's population. The "revolutions" IT-company CEOs love to tout, on the other hand, are presented as significant improvements in technology products; much is made about the profound beneficial impact this will have on society, though little evidence is given. Nothing is said about profound changes in power structures, though one assumes that they worry that their company will be one to be overthrown.

The past "revolutionary" technology changes that are cited include the introduction of the mini-computer and the PC. Funnily, though, the company which arguably had the most lose in these revolutions is still very much with us: IBM. The companies who disappeared (Amdahl, ICL, DEC, etc.) must've experienced these changes as "forcible and pervasive", and their shareholders must've experienced a violent change to their portfolios.

However, it's misleading to tout Moore's Law are revolutionary. It's impact on productivity may be profound, but the change has been adiabatic. What would be wrenching is a sudden change in the 60% annual growth rate that Moore's Law represents.

Artists as Exemplary Plebs

Ordinary people don't really care about Art or Artists, but yet, art continues to have broad support in the culture. Perhaps art's appeal is that it's supremely individualistic - the Lone Artist, who is known by his or her name, not that that of their company or clan. Perhaps the majority of people, be necessity at the base of the pyramid, take inspiration from the sight of others succeeding as individuals, as much as they take inspiration from the art work itself.

A distinguishing aspect of our Power Lab session was the flowering of art in the community of "Immigrants", the people at the bottom of the society. It was a key reason why a revolution was averted. What was not unusual, though, was that the creativity came from the Immigrants. It's a recurring feature of Power Labs, and organizations in general, that it's the people at the bottom who are the most creative, and have the most fun.

The "Bottoms" are also the most vulnerable, and as a result typically band together in a WE versus THEY response to the power of the Middles and the Tops. The greatest threat to Bottoms is their susceptibility to group think.

Artists have status not only because give pleasure through the things they make, but also because they represent the potential every Bottom has to succeed on their own terms in a power structure. Artists are stereotypical Bottoms: they are vulnerable and impoverished, they don't own resources (like Tops), and they don't control the flow of resources (like Middles). They inspire other Bottoms by their example of succeeding on their own terms, as individuals.

Artists respond to their predecessors and create autonomous traditions outside the dominant power structures based on wealth and organization. They act on their own - they have the autonomy of Tops without the responsibility of owning a power system. They serve the Tops (the patrons) and inspire the Bottoms (the consumers of experiences), without owing allegiance to either.

Even the power structures in the art world bear this out: The Tops are the patrons and politicians who fund the work. The Middles are the "arts professionals" who are the arbiters of taste and conduits of resources: museum curators, critics, gallery owners. As is typical of the organizational dynamic described by Barry Oshry, inventor of the Power Lab, artists despise the Tops ("Epater les Bourgeois!") and feel exploited by the middles (ever heard artists whining about the percentage their gallery takes?).

All celebrity functions as inspiration and touch stone: it's an example to be emulated and dreamt about. However, the very poverty of artists (celebrities excepted) allows them to be closer model for the much-put-upon Bottom.

Saturday, November 08, 2003

I've just come back from a week in an immersion training course: the "Power Lab". It's a social simulation where participants live out the roles of being at the top, middle and bottom of a society. It was held up in the mountains - it was cold! Each society works out differently; ours managed to avoid a revolution through art. Some haiku came of it:

piebald mountain egg
feldspar and mica and quartz
a granite pebble

lime green lichen
tendrils of symbiosis
algae and fungus

food, bed, deception
something blossomed in the frost
no cowabunga

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Uncle Theo, the Lout, and a Pig in a Tutu

I’ve decided to think of hotels as people. Every person is different, wonderful and infuriating in their own way. Each thinks they’re good, and that their way of doing things is best and natural – no matter how strange it might be to others.

The Hotel Kasteel Bloemendal in Vaals (in Holland, close to the German border) is like an aging, once-dashing bachelor: Uncle Theo. He was very handsome in his young days, and still wears a silk cravat. His tweedy jackets are a little frayed, and the cravat has seen better days. There’s still a shadow of the young man, but there’s now nothing to hide the cruel fact that he’s not very smart, or very rich.

The Bloemendal is an imposing building, with a red carpet winding up the stairs to the lobby. My room was large, but the carpet was worn. There was a kettle in cupboard – ah, so nice to be able to make some rooibos tea! – but no notepad on the desk. There was a phone with a modem jack, but it was next to the bed, on the other side of the room from the desk.

The Meridien Hotel on Piccadilly, on the other hand, is a Lout in Livery. The interior design is wonderful: flair, taste, sophistication. The serving staff, on the other hand, is young, unenthusiastic, and clumsy. I had dinner in the fancy Terrace Restaurant; my server had body odor and a flippant attitude. I will grant them, though, that the young wine waiter was smartly turned out and attentive.

The Dorint Quellenhof in Aachen looked like the perfect place, though as a Five Star it was way fancier than I needed. It’s a lovely building, and backs onto a huge park; going for a run in the morning is a delight. It (apparently) has a luxurious spa. I’m sure German visitors would find it a delight. On the other hand… the staff are gormless, and the facilities for business people are pathetic. Their English is limited at best, and absent as a rule. I asked for a room with an analog line; it didn’t work. I was moved to another room – where it didn’t work either. I suspect that’s because they have ISDN lines, but the staff were clueless. To add insult to injury, there was no room service menu in the room. I had to take the hotel facilities folder down to reception to prove my point. I went for a run, and was told that there would be one when I got back. There wasn’t… and so they sent up someone with the bar menu... I think they must’ve bribed someone to get their fourth and fifth stars.

The Quellenhof is a Pig in a Tutu.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Hearing the Little People speak

In "Measure for Measure", the Duke conceals himself as a monk, moving around under cover observing his subjects and the misdeeds of his deputy. This happens in other Shakespeare plays, for example when Henry V moves unrecognized among his troops before battle.

Leaders can't do that any more. In our culture of images and intimacy, it's so much easier to recognize celebrities. In earlier days, clothes made the man; one recognized the King by his vestments. Dressed otherwise, who would recognize him?

Leaders arguably now have much more "scientific" ways of knowing what their subjects think: opinion polls. But these are much more indirect than having a soldier say to your face, "But if the Cause be not good, the King himselfe hath a heauie Reckoning to make, when all those Legges, and Armes, and Heads, chopt off in a Battaile, shall ioyne together at the latter day, and cry all, Wee dyed at such a place, some swearing, some crying for a Surgean." (Henry V, Act 3.)

Leaders can no longer hear the unsullied truth - with a clean conscience. They either have to reveal themselves, and pay the price of sycophancy; or, have the truth mediated by polls and focus group sound bites; or, eavesdrop on conversations through surveillance techniques. Sure, it is ethically questionable for the King to disguise himself to hear his subjects - but it is much less immoral than to be a Peeping Tom.

It is the modern condition: we know more, but we understand less. The leader has more data, but less direct knowledge. The only anti-dote, I imagine, is for the Big Man to spend substantial time with his underlings; so much time that after a time they forget who they are talking to, and tell the truth.

Combating the Copy Droid

Who knew Deloitte had a sense of humor?

I loved Bullfighter, a readability checker for MS Word and Powerpoint. I was encouraged by their FAQ. For example:

Q: What applications can use Bullfighter?
A: Bullfighter works with Microsoft Word and PowerPoint 2000 and XP. It doesn't work with Office 97 or earlier. We tried it. There were small explosions and our entire drives were wiped out instantly. If you want to try it, go ahead.

Q: Is there any science behind Bullfighter, or did someone just come with this idea at a bar somewhere? How can I learn more?
A: Yes. The Flesch Reading Ease score is one of the accepted standards for measuring the demands placed on a reader, and the late Dr. Rudolf Flesch is still regarded as an important figure in the field of readability. His book, "How to Write, Speak and Think More Effectively" (Signet, 1960), is an excellent survey of his work.

Q: So you didn't use any research later than 1960 for this?
A: Right. Remember, we can stop answering FAQs anytime we want to.

Furniture Company Culture

I still treasure my visit to Herman Miller. I have vivid memories of the guest house, a converted lake-side mansion, which manages to be luxurious without being opulent. The people were friendly and energetic, yet reserved. I was reminded of them when I attended a course on organizational culture based on Bill Schneider's research, Herman Miller is a cultivation culture company par excellence.

I'm greatly taken with Schneider's work, and I'm trying to figure out how to recognize a company's culture. I decided to compare the web sites of Herman Miller and their arch-competitor (and nearby Michigan neighbor) Steelcase.

These are evidently very different companies. Even though the content of the sites is very similar, the presentation is starkly different. Herman Miller's home page - and, indeed, the whole site - is a study in understatement. Text is sparingly used against a white background; the only colour is hints of blue in highlights and navigational elements. Steelcase's page and site is elegant, too - come on, both companies are selling design - but it is more animated and colorful. Pictures of people (all of them evidently "talent") and saturated colors are used throughout.

While Steelcase shows many people, it doesn't talk about individuals. It prefers objective statements about excellence, while Herman Miller gets its points across with anecdotes. Take how they talk about their values:

Steelcase: "Steelcase was founded in 1912 by a few people with a strong commitment to integrity and doing the right thing for their customers, employees, business partners, associates and neighbors. Their principles became the foundation of our company, passed on from decade to decade. Living our core values is essential to our identity, reputation and success today, just as it was in the past. "

Herman Miller: "Our founder, D.J. De Pree, committed Herman Miller to "modern" furniture in 1936 partly because he saw a moral dimension to Gilbert Rohde's clean designs, honest materials, and lack of ornamentation. In 1984, a major impetus behind Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick's Equa chair was a desire to give a reasonably priced, comfortable, good-looking chair to everybody in offices--not just the higher-ups. "

Herman Miller comes across as serious and a little rueful. Here's what the site has to say about taking risk: "Another aspect of innovation - risk-taking - is just as important. Herman Miller tries to maintain its appetite for risk. As we have grown larger and become responsible for more equity, the pressure to minimize risk has mounted. Nevertheless, getting behind promising new products - that sometimes become innovations - remains a risk we are happy to embrace. " It's clear that they regret that they can't take as much risk as they used to, but they forge ahead with a determined expression.

Steelcase is serious, too, but they won't admit weakness. Here's how they answer the question, Who Is Steelcase? "Whatever you need to accomplish, Steelcase can provide you with the environment and the tools to do it better, faster and more effectively. That's because we're passionate about unlocking the potential of people at work. It's the fundamental principle on which our company was founded in 1912 and it remains our single-minded focus in the 21st century. We make it our business to study how people work, to fully understand the ever-changing needs of individuals, teams and organizations all around the world. Then we take our knowledge, couple it with products and services inspired by what we've learned about the workplace, and create solutions that help people have a better day at work. " It makes me cringe that they can unburden themselves of such drivel with a completely straight face. The Copy Droids have taken over.

Steelcase shows many signs of being a "competency culture" company. According to Schneider: "This culture is all about distinction. It fundamentally exists to ensure the accomplishment of unparalleled, unmatched products or services. Conceptual systematism means that the fundamental issue in a competence culture is the realization of conceptual goals, particularly superior, distinctive conceptual goals." Competency culture is about excellence, continuous improvement, and competitions for its own sake.

On the other hand, a cultivation culture company like Herman Miller is about enrichment. "It fundamentally exists to ensure the fullest growth of the customer, fulfillment of the customer’s potential, the raising up of the customer. This culture is all about the further realization of ideals, values, and higher order purposes." Cultivation culture emphasizes creativity, dedication, and values.

So, which is better? What a competency culture question! I'd rather work at Herman Miller than Steelcase, if the web site is any guide. By the numbers, though, there's nothing in it. Evidence, if it were needed, that a company's culture alone doesn't determine its success.

Herman Miller has a P/E ratio of 88; Steelcase has been losing money, so the PE is undefined. S&P is "bullish" on Herman Miller while it's "neutral" on Steelcase. Steelcase employee base shrank by 17% over the last year, and Herman Miller by 13%. Furniture's a lousy business right now...

It's hard for a lay person to decide between them in terms of design; both cite reams of design awards. Both companies show up on Fortune's Most Admired Companies list, and CareerGraph's equivalent. On the other hand, Herman Miller was selected as one of the companies on's list of the world's top 20 sustainable stock picks. Herman Miller ranked 49th in the 2003 Information Week 500, a ranking of the country's most technologically progressive companies.

Saturday, October 11, 2003

Blog Wanted

Settled middle-everything Anglo gonk (weenk?) seeks thoughtful blog for occasional companionship. Me: resident alien, catholic tastes, bookish, short attention span. You: eclectic, intellectual, witty, off-beat. No ranters, technophiliacs, or newshounds. Canadians welcome.

Friday, October 10, 2003

again the full moon
aloof and impudent both
springs itself on me

Thursday, October 02, 2003

empty air appears
winter's first cold breath
whites away distance

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Lost in Translation

a haiku in one hour and forty two minutes

the feeling looking out of a taxi, jet lagged, without bearings

a reminder of a memory that isn't yours

wondering if life will get any easier. No. Yes.

the neon jitter of a grimy city, seen through a window, muffled

trying to sleep in a rich hotel room, with crisp soft sheets

a mood savoured, wistfully

middle age, his exhaustion stronger than his libido

recognizing something that you haven't seen

Sunday, September 21, 2003

The Causality Fallacy

We all love explanations. Why did she do that? How does that work? The trouble is, many systems don't lend themselves to simple explations. Our obsession with cause and effect leads to many dangerous behaviors, from seeking scapegoats, to over-simplifying complex problems that lack a single cause.

The NPR show On the Media got me thinking about this. Bob Garfield did a great piece on "single factor analysis" on September 12th. At the close of every trading day, reporters not only say, "The Dow closed down 50 points," they also give the reason: a Commerce Department report, poor earnings by a bellwether stock, profit taking. This is rubbish, of course: there is no single reason why three billion share trades on average moved one way or another. They do it, and we demand it, because There Has To Be A Reason.

One can multiply examples indefinitely: A post mortem has to show a cause of death. A crime has to have a limited number of perpetrators. A war was won or lost because of the actions of one man. Jack left Jill because she was unfaithful. The space shuttle Columbia crashed because of NASA culture.

This is not just because we live in a sound bite culture where everything has to be explained in two sentences. Stories since time immemorial have boiled reality down into a few characters and some pivotal events. This is because our learning brains have evolved to extract a few key factors from the environment, and associate them with events. This is evidently a supremely adaptive behavior, at least for the environment we faced in the course of evolution -- we're still around, aren't we?

However, Homo sapiens can now influence and build very complex systems that do not have simple explanations. Take chaotic systems; their exquisite dependence on input values means that one simply cannot explain why one outcome was reached rather than another. The global warming polemic is a perfect case where human nature forces the debate into a supposedly decidable fight over whether (a) global warming exists, and (b) whether industrial carbon dioxide is exacerbating it. The climate is a chaotic system; even the largest computers can't (and won't ever, it is said) predict the weather more than three days in advance.

If we are to think about the world in a way that mimics reality, then, we have to give up the habit of seeking cause and effect. Let's just ignore the argument that this means that science is irrelevant; it doesn't - cf. quantum mechanics and non-linear systems theory, to pick just two examples. What's really at stake is just as easy as obeying the command, "Add two plus two, but don't think about pink elephants."

Since it's in our nature to seek simple causes, we can't avoid seeking simple causes. We can, though, be aware that we have this weakness, and try to accomodate it. Tren Griffin taught me about psychological basis for investor misjudgement, as expounded by Charlie Munger in his on speech on "24 Standard Causes of Human Misjudgment". Munger calls it "patterened irrationality", and he gives examples of how one can gain wisdom by applying knowledge of our frailty. For example, he cites "the Warren Buffett rule for open-outcry auctions: don't go." If you know that a market has been set up to make you act irrationally, don't use it.

I'm not denying causality here. I'm claiming that the unaided human mind (unaided by cultural props like science and wisdom, that is) can only cope with a very simple form of causality: an effect has a single, simple, proximal cause. That's evidently false, and what one might call the Causality Fallacy.

So what? What should one do about the causality fallacy? Well, I don't know Warren Buffett, but even I know I'm no Warren Buffett. Still, here are some first thoughts:

  • Accept that many things simply cannot be explained in a satisfactory way. God moves in mysterious ways, it is said. They may be mysterious simply because our brains have evolved to see only simple motives, not ones that have the complexity of reality.

  • If you think something has a simple explanation, try to find another one.

  • If the answer is Either/Or, look for a third possibility.

Winning against a Big Ego (2)

More hints from the martial arts

Tai Chi (an "internal martial art", by its own definition) is based on the "Ten Essentials". One of them is "Use Intent rather than Force".
Yang Chengfu explains that one can release energy by using intent; if you force things, the energy is blocked. He refers to the saying in the taiji classics: "Only by being extremely soft are you able to achieve extreme hardness."

The lesson here is that the Little Person should focus their energy on where they want the organization, or the Big Ego, to go. Trying to force the issue against a Big Ego will simply lead to resistance, and pain. If you look to the outcome you seek -- more emphasis on a particular product function, say -- many routes will appear. Simply confronting the problem -- disinterest in a given group in some customer's problem -- will generate resistance. One also has to think hard about what outcome is desired before acting. In the example, perhaps the outcome isn't, in fact, a new product feature; it could be a deeper understanding in the design organization about a customer's problem.

Yang Chengfu's description of the antithesis of tai chi is applicable to some Big Ego's I've come across: "Someone who practices external martial arts, when he is using his force, seems very strong. But when not using force, he is very light and floating. By this we can see that his force is actually external, or superficial strength. The force used by external martial artists is especially easy to lead or deflect, hence it is not of much value."

Easy for Yang Chenfu, perhaps... And here's the second lesson: one can reach that level of skill, but it will require practice, practice, and more practice.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Another "Blue Highways" quote

William Least Heat Moon

"When I go quiet I stop hearing myself and start hearing the world outside me. Then I hear something very great."

- Brother Patrick Duffy, Monastery of the Holy Spirit (Trappist), Conyers, Georgia (end of chapter 18)

When I hear the world outside me here at home, all I hear is I-405. OK, that's facetious. One needs a little joke to defuse the point Brother Patrick is making, and the worry that one might need to become a monk in order to learn how to stop hearing yourself.

Sunday, September 14, 2003

To Be or To Be, that is the question

One of the toughest parts of learning Spanish is using the two forms of the verb "to be" correctly: "ser" and "estar".

"Ser" is about the essence of being: I am male, it is possible, you are American. It's the kind of stuff you'd see in the description of someone on the Most Wanted List. "Estar" is for contingent characteristics: I am here, that apple is rotten, we are late.

This was beautifully described Sergi Pámies's column on Spanish for foreigners in El País on 8 August 2003, "Copula, que algo queda." (It's in the archives, but you have to subscribe the on-line paper to get access.) He sums up the differences by recalling a line from a Campoamor poem about the inhabitants of a lunatic asylum: "Ni están todos los que son, ni son todos los que están." My beginner's translation would be: "They don't show everything they are, nor are they everything they appear to be."

One can, of course, speculate endlessly about how this subtlety affects the worldview of Spanish speakers, and whether having to make do with just one verb "to be" makes English speakers less aware of the nature of being. I don't think it makes much difference, really - circumlocutions are the stuff of all languages. However, one might expect that similar distinctions will show up elswhere in the language, and that's indeed what I recently learnt.

In trying to translate "become" into Spanish, I learned that different verbs are used for different kinds of becoming. "Ponerse" (the verb poner, to put, plus the reflexive pronoun "se") is used for temporary but normal changes, like becoming ill, getting angry, or turning pale. "Volverse" (volver means to turn) is use more profound and involuntary changes, like going mad, becoming arrogant, or becoming impatient. One could say that ponerse is to volverse, as estar is to ser.

We see, again, a distinction between the temporary and the permanent, the superficial and the profound.

Still, having just two ways to describe being is as much an approximation as just one. In fact, Spanish uses hacerse and llegar a ser to describe changes in profession and social status (e.g., she became a lawyer), and convertirse and transformarse to talk about changes in essence (e.g., the wine became vinegar).

Depression - it's in the genes

This week's New Scientist (13 Sep 2003) features a story by Graham Lawton that investigates the emerging biological basis of personality. Researchers are finding gene expression patterns that influence behavioral traits.

There are many personality models, most of them with five traits. Psychologists now generally agree that all of them measure essentially the same characteristics. One leading version is the NEO Personality Inventory. Its five dimensions are neuroticism, extroversion, opennes to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness. They're independent of each other - there's no correlation between the score you get for one vs. the score you get for another. Klaus-Peter Lesch at the University of Wurzburg has reported finding a gene variant that correlates with neuroticism, and and Israeli team has found a similar link to extroversion.

I found a version of the NEO-PI on the web prepared by John A. Johnson, the IPIP-NEO. I took the short version, and the results came as little surprise. (That's somewhat to be expected, since it's testing my self-perception. I haven't yet done the control where I ask someone else to evaluate me.) For the record:
Extroversion: Low. Introverted, reserved, quiet. Enjoys solitude and solitary activities. Socializing tends to be restricted to a few close friends.
Agreeableness: High. Strong interest in others' needs and well-being. Pleasant, sympathetic, cooperative.
Conscientiousness: High. Sets clear goals and pursues them with determination. Regarded as reliable and hard-working.
Neuroticism: Low. Calm, composed, unflappable. (I do, however, have a high Depression sub-score. This seems to be a family trait - here come those genes!)
Openness to Experience: High. Enjoys novelty, variety, change. Curious, imaginative, creative.

This was useful data for me. I've always been confused by the fact that I am perceived to be sociable, while in fact I prefer solitude. By this model, that's because I score high on agreeableness, but low on extroversion.

The other key insight is that I will not be happy in a leadership role where I have to spend a lot of time with people - even though my amiability and calmness might lead people to believe that I'd be a decent leader. In fact, I'd be lousy at the kind of leadership that requires forcing through tough decisions - one needs low agreeableness for that.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

5-7-5 for autumn

every morning
the sun's back a bit later
from his southern love

Saturday, September 06, 2003

Winning against a Big Ego

I'm a Little Person. Not having a big ego is one reason why I've found a comfortable niche at work. Most of us are Little People, and we're often cowed by the Big Egos. They have a surfeit of stamina, confidence, competitiveness. All the status stuff just means more to them, and so they win more. They win more stuff, and they win more often.

That's OK, most of the time. Still, sometimes the Little People wish they could win a round or two. It's tough; the Big Egos just care more. One of my blog projects is to figure out how we can prevail at least sometimes.

Martial arts, particularly those developed by the weak to defend themselves, seem to be apposite. Think aikido; think guerilla warfare.

Here are some ideas:

1. Pick your ground. Make sure you know the terrain better than the Big Ego. They range far and wide

2. Take your losses. You will lose more often than you win. However, any win is a triumph.

3. Let them save face. Understand why you need to win, and what you need to win. If you can achieve your goal and leave the Big Ego thinking they lost nothing, you are much less likely to be harmed in a fit of revenge. If you need to humiliate then, understand that the deal is that they may then destroy you.

4. If you can't control yourself, you can't control them. The Seidokan Principles of Aikido says it more gently: "True Victory is Victory Over Oneself. One must first learn to control oneself before attempting to harmonize and control others."

5. Play from the edge - engage, but don't get too close. You can't win if you don't commit, but it helps if you can draw the Big Ego off balance into an area you control. Seidokan Aikido calls this the "range of effectiveness".

6. Yield before responding. This is used in tai chi, and I expect in many other arts. Yield to the initial attack, drawing the attacker forward, off balance. If you try to match your ego directly against the Big Ego, you will inevitably lose.

Meditations on Aurelius' Meditations (2)

Book 2, 5

From the Hays translation: "Concentrate every minute like a Roman - like a man - on doing what's in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. An on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can - if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what you mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable."

This directness is so close to what I'm taking from taosism right now. Look at the moment; try to see how everything is connected; I am one of those things. As my mother admonished me this morning, "Being, not doing!" It's an anti-dote to self-centeredness and self-pity - with the bonus that it makes me feel good. "The thousand things" (a common locution for "the world" in old Chinese, I gather) is so much more interesting than just the small subset inside my head. Everybody enjoys nature, sunsets, flowers.

I'm touched by the implication in Aurelius' exhortation: "Concentrate, yes you can!" Since he was writing this to and for himself, it means that he, himself, was unable to concentrate, and felt bound up in distractions. He felt himself to be hypocritical, self-centered, and irritable. The fact that his diary survived means that many thousands of people through the centuries were touched, too. It reassures me that there is no alternative to constantly repeating these platitudes. We will always fail - oh, what a boon to the self-appointed soul savers! - but we also all always dream to do better.

The autumn sun is slanting across the tree across the street, and a breeze moves the branches.
My new hard disk's whiny hum, the PC's fan, the roar from the freeway.

Monday, September 01, 2003

Notes to Self (2)

Look and see the ten thousand things. The world is much more interesting than the inside of your head.

Find links between things.

Relax into risk. You can't analyze fast enough to make fully determined decisions.

Note to Reader (2)

This history will be rewritten.

I will go back and edit old posts for both substance and style to the full extent that Blogger allows.

This was the first Note to Reader, before I'd figured out how to put in titles...)

Sunday, August 31, 2003

The Alchemy of Invention

A visit to the old mill in Thorp, WA is helping me puzzle through a conundrum: Where does wealth come from? Increasing affluence is the ultimate non-zero sum game; everybody seems to win. We have more possessions and longer lives than our parents, and they more than theirs, and so on back through the ages, allowing for occasional down swings and depressions. Plants use sunlight to build themselves out of air and water; entropy is reversed through the input of solar energy. How do we manage to create so much out of nothing?

In a word: Invention.

The first example at the Thorp Mill was the Samson Lateral Power Turbine. This water-powered turbine drives the mill, much like a water wheel powered earlier mills. The difference (I was told by Lexi, the excellent guide and curator) is that the Samson works by water pressure, and not water speed. It’s evident that it also extracts more energy, since the entire (horizontal) wheel is under water; it is powered all the way around its circumference, all the time, unlike a vertical wheel. The other advantage must have been that it was easier to install. A water wheel would have to be designed for the particular speed of the water in the available mill race; the Samson would work the same way everywhere. The Samson, in other words, replaced the dependency on the intelligence of many mill designers, one of which would need to found to design each new mill, with the inventiveness of Mr. Samson, who replaced custom design by encapsulating his insight in some cast iron and a set of installation instructions.

Tren Griffin came up with the term “software in a box” (recently written up by Bill Gurley) to capture his insight that the value of most devices is not concrete; it’s in the software that they embody. Samson’s Lateral Power Turbine is the nineteenth century equivalent of “software in a box”.

The value of intellectual property became even clearer when I saw the Bernard & Leas “Plan Sifter”. This device enabled a miller to extract 40% more flour per bushel of wheat than they were able to do with previous equipment. The legend on the side of the sifter proudly proclaim its inventor (one Carl Haggenmacher), that it was patented in May 27th, 1890 (patent numbers 428 907, 428 908, and 428 909), and the patent was reissued on June 28th, 1892 (number 11.252).

Patents must have mattered. For example, W. D. Gray’s Patented Noiseless Roller Mill was prominently labeled with 23 patents, issued between Dec 23rd, 1879 (number 222,895) and September 8th, 1891 (159,075).

Patents enabled the inventor and manufacturer to extract a temporary premium for their insight and investment. Even with the premium, the Plan Sifter made the miller more profitable, since he decided to buy one, and not use the old technology. In the long term, after the patents had expired, this knowledge was available to all; every subsequent sifter was more economical. We humans were able to use more and throw away less. It was as if we were now able to create more flour out of thin air. Alchemy, indeed.

Lessons from the Rodeo

This was my second Ellensburg Labor Day Week-End Rodeo. I love this thing; it’s pure American Heartland. The organizers and attendees do this for themselves, by themselves. They are keeping a culture alive without any PC baggage. Every Rodeo starts with the Yakima tribe coming down the hill into the arena on horseback. It could only have been embarrassing to someone from the Left side of the Cascades like me; the fact is, Ellensburg is located where the tribes in the region gathered every year since time immemorial to trade and have a good time, and the Yakima have been part of the Rodeo since its inception.

The Rodeo is part of the Kittitas County Fair. Half the fair-ground is taken up with the usual carousels, rides, and amusement arcades. The other half is the soul of the event: the 4-H livestock show where farm kids show the animals they’ve raised.

We wandered into a hall where cattle were being judged. A dozen children aged five to twelve stood in the show ring, each holding a steer many times larger than themselves. The judge – a serious young farmer, probably with kids exactly that age – was slowly working his way around the circle, studying the cattle, quietly talking with each exhibitor in turn. We came in near the end, I gathered from an overheard conversation, and stood watching for ten minutes. There were perhaps a hundred onlookers leaning on the fence, and sitting in the bleachers. Little was said; everyone was studying the livestock. At last the judge picked five contestants to move to the next round. He complimented everyone, encouraged the losers to work on the small points they were weak on, everyone got their awards, and the losers filed out of the ring. When we left, the winners from the previous elimination were filing into the ring.

Judging is an important part of this life. There are competitions for swine, poultry, rabbits, horses, roping, bronco riding, and beauty queen. These competitions seemed somehow more substantive than the ethereal concerns of white collar suburbia. These were real livestock, and the kids had to brush off their hindquarters from time to time; there were notices in every stall indicating who had bought the animal. The skills tested in the rodeo were clearly important to running a farm; and though they were pretty, the Royal Court (the queen of the fair and her princess) could ride a horse full tilt with the best of them.

White collar life is too complicated to distill its essential skills into spectator sport. It’s too specialized. And I’d rather observe beautiful young people perform athletic feats than watch a debating society or chess game. (The relative ratings of ESPN and C-SPAN suggest that I’m not the only one.)

The Rodeo is morality play about hard work and bad breaks. Everything turns on staying on a bull for eight seconds, once every day over three days; and if you stay on, it then depends on the quality of the bull and the whims of the judges. If you get a docile bull, you can’t get a good score. It’s about luck – but nobody uses that term. It may be to avert a jinx, but it may be deeper.

So many American sports are built on lightning fast contingency. A baseball batter sits around for ages, and then gets a few swings – then it’s back to sitting around. They fail more often than not; getting a hit on one out of every three outings is something few achieve. American football consists of bursts of activity interspersed with long periods of boredom. One shot at glory, then sit around and wait again. (Not a bad training for war.)

This unspoken obverse is a necessary anti-dote to the optimistic determinism that pervades American culture: “Anyone can succeed if they just try hard enough.” The world’s not like that, of course. Jaded Europeans know this too well; they pay the price of not even trying when they might have succeeded. American culture is built on the assumption that everything will work out fine in the end, whether one is losing weight, climbing the career ladder, or spreading American values around the world. The shadow of bad luck in rodeo, football and baseball is the hidden entry required to make the books of reality balance.

This Dark Twin can be found everywhere in all cultures. Americans’ openness and friendliness is the flip side of a fear of strangers – be nice to everybody, you never know who’s going to pull a gun on you. The pervasive Christian spirituality in America is belied by the profound secularism and lack of religiosity in every day life. Almost everybody goes to church, but one has to look very hard for religious symbolism in everyday life and language.

Sometimes the Hidden Twin is the bright side. Jaded Europeans constantly remind each other that the world is a vale of tears, and that all efforts are doomed in the long run. Of course – but then one pays the price of not even trying when they might have succeeded. The hidden side is optimism – not much spoken of, but the foundation of the inventiveness that has been most visible, commercially, in the Nordic countries in recent years.

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Forgive me Father, it has been seven days since I last blogged

Writing a personal blog has a distinctly confessional feel to it. You're saying things that other people might read - or worse, things that they might dredge up nine years from now when you need to be on your best appearances. It's almost a diary, but it's public.

In the old days, confession in the Catholic church was a public affair: you had to stand up in front of the congregation to confess your sins. The box-confessional is a new-fangled piece of furniture; even earlier confessionals were simply chairs where people could kneel, in the full view of all, on either side of the priest.

Saying things in public is different. It matters more, even if nobody's listening. It reminds me of being at art school. You're experimenting and no-one else really cares, but you still have to put your work up in a place where anybody can criticize it. There's a frisson, a little adrenalin that simply making something for yourself wouldn't have. We're such social animals that we have to construct a society for ourselves even when we're alone.

There's also a self-consciousness which true performers can turn to their advantage. Hey, look at me, dammit! I'm pouring out my soul here, you owe me your attention! Most of us just end up faintly embarrassed. Perhaps that's why Marcus Aurelius' Meditations are so wonderful: they were personal diaries, not intended for publication. If they had been, perhaps Marcus would not have been so profound.

Just like confession, blogs also carry a good weight of guilt. Have you neglegted your obligations - again? How could you say something so inane? Didn't you realize that you were rehearsing the obvious? How dare your write with a style that's like a bean counter trying to waltz? Cross-linking is like saying ten Hail Mary's; a duty that washes away the sin, leaving your soul fresh and clean, ready to be soiled again.

Saturday, August 23, 2003

Note to Self (1)

Follow a train of thought to its logical conclusion, and then beyond.

The man who showed me how to photograph work at art school taught me about 'bracketing'. Don't just pick a nice angle and be done with it - you may miss a better one. Move the camera up, until it's too high; then move it down until it's too low. The right angle is in between. Likewise, pan to the left and the right until you've established the outer limits before composing the shot.

One has to go beyond the limit in order to find something interesting. In a world of ideas, stating the obvious has no value. (OK, that's false, but I'm not thinking of polemics, politics, and self-help books here.) To make a contribution, one has to find a new perspective.

(And once found, say it succinctly. The Economist's style guide advises against tired metaphors; "they will tire the reader." Finding new metaphors, just like finding new ideas, is hard work.)

I realized the other day that...

I heard this morning on NPR that...
I've believed for years that...
It's just struck me that...

I've noticed in the last week how often I preface remarks with time qualifiers. Other people do so, too. Why?

At the very least, these warm-up clauses establish one's turn in the conversation, and prepare listeners for the main course. They draw attention to the speaker, and allow one to get a sentence going even while others are still speaking.

But they're also more than simply eloquent versions of "Uhhh..." I feel the need to provide the context for my statements. It's an attempt to be better understood; for some reason we believe that listeners care about when we had an insight.

That's a way of saying, It's the Ego Talking. I'm at the center of my world, not only in space but in time. All events need to be defined in relation to my personal now. It's a way of orienting ourselves to event, anchoring our consciousness in the stream of events. Since memory has to be constantly be reconstructed, it may also be a way of creating consciousness.

In some cases, it's also a way to claim priority. If you hear someone starting a sentence with, "I've always said that ...," it's a cue that they're claiming that they've known something that others haven't. It's a way of reinforcing the me/them dichotomy, and showing that the Us is better than the They.

Starting statements with qualifiers of any kind is a sign of insecurity. It shows that the speaker has to establish their presence, and feels uncertain about their right to speak, and even about the value of their contribution. Big Egos seldom preface their statements; to them, their opinions are eagerly awaited, self-evident statements of universal truth. The Little People aren't so sure. Here are some of their most commonly used opening qualifiers, with translation:
"I believe..." - statement of faith
"I think..." - personal opinion
"I suspect..." - uncertainty
"I'm certain..." - statement of faith
"Perhaps..." - uncertainty

Homework: Watch out for your use of time qualifiers. Examine if they add any explicit information. Examine your hidden motivations were for using them. Are you a Big Ego or a Little Person?

Friday, August 22, 2003

Quotes (1)

Christopher Ireland, the person who inspired me to start this blog, suggested I read Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. It's a wonderful book. I'm only 31 pages into it but it's rekindled my love of travelogues. I really enjoyed reading various of Jonathan Raban's books some years ago, but after a while the insistent description/sub-text combo wore me down. Least Heat-Moon is telling a story, too, but his language is so poetic that one could dip into any few pages just to savor the words.

In Chapter 9 he quotes a contention of his father's, William Heat-Moon: "[A] man becomes his attentions. His observations and curiosity, they make him and remake him."

A little further, in Chapter 15 (they're very short chapters), he quotes Madison Wheeler, a man who lives in Nameless, Tennessee: "Factory work's easier on the back, and I don't mind it, understand, but a man becomes what he does. Got to watch that. That's why I keep farmin', although the crops haven't ever throve. It's the doin' that's important."

I realized recently that I wasn't looking outside my head enough. I had thought the problem was that I was too wrapped up in the world, spending all my effort on other people's priorities; I thought that I needed to turn inward, to find my own creativity. I was wrong. The problem was that I was living inside my head, and not paying attention to the world. I had forgotten how hard, and how invigorating, it is to simply look and keep looking at the clouds, or a tree, or another person. It's so easy to spiral into self-absorption.

Being self-absorbed isn't the same as being centered. I struggle to sit quietly for more than a couple of minutes. I think I'm running away from the possibility that I have something important but unwanted to say to myself. Learning to attend to the world outside is hopefully an intermediate step in attending to the little voice inside.

The little voice likes the quote about becoming what one does. It's not sure it likes what I'm attending to, or what I'm doing. I'm not sure it's right, but we're going to have to talk about it, sooner or later.

This will help you more than than it'll help me

Yes, I am a freeloader. But no, that's not going to stop me complaining.

I don't have kids, and probably won't have. People who do have children, and who spend the time, energy, and money to raise them, are contributing to my happy retirement - those kids' taxes and productivity will pay for my declining years. Still, I'm dismayed at the way so many children are being raised in the United States.

Jeffrey MacDonald reports in the Christian Science Monitor that American parents are spending $2.8 billion a year on educational toys for infants and pre-schoolers. Like all parents, they're trying to give their offspring a jump on the competition; they hope that these toys will make their kids smarter. The trouble is that there's no evidence that these toys make a whit of difference to IQ. The experts do agree that children should be immersed in a rich, interactive, multi-media environment. The best way to stimulate all their senses is to, gasp!, spend time with them.

Now you see the catch - people don't have time to spend with their kids. Both parents have to work in order to give the kids the affluent lifestyle they deserve. Consequently, children are parked in front of videos for hours on end. I'm sure parents feel bad about having to do this. How much better, then, to believe that the videos are in fact helping the child, rather than giving a breather to the adult.

The alternative, that one parent devotes the best years of their life to raising their children, is not an easy one. My mother did this, and I'll be eternally grateful to her for that. However, in doing so she sacrificed a promising academic career. Many low-income parents have no alternative; if the adult doesn't work, the kid doesn't eat. However, I don't accept that middle class families absolutely need two incomes to raise a family. Sure, one needs two incomes to pay for the balloon mansion and the two SUVs and the wide-screen entertainment system and all the extra-mural classes for the kids - but those are luxuries, not necessities.

I respect dual-earners' choice to have the VCR baby-sit their off-spring; they think much harder about whether they're making the best choices for their kids than I ever will. At the core we're all selfish. I wouldn't want to give up my work in order to look after toddlers (and so I haven't). My dismay at way the middle and upper classes raise their kids stems from my own self-interest: children raised on videos rather than human interaction will be less productive, and the society they build will be less caring. This will be bad news for me when I'm old and decrepit and looking to dividends and hand-outs for sustenance.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Louise Jacobson of the Washington Post reports on the emerging discipline of "synchrony". That's the fancy word for stuff happening together: fireflies flashing, heart cells beating, and even the moon always having the same face to the earth.

The story refers to a book that seems worth reading: Steven Strogatz's "Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order". The basic premise, says Lissa Harris in her review for the Cornell Chronicle, is that order is not just possible, it is inevitable: Any system of coupled oscillators will self-organize.
There are two kinds of people in the world:
- Those who divide the world into two categories
- and those who don't

When I heard an executive described as someone who was "often wrong but never in doubt," it occurred to me that there was another category of people: those who were often right, but always in doubt.

I'm in the second category, which is one of the many reasons why I'll never be an executive.

We definitely place a higher value on those in the first category, perhaps because there is already so much uncertainty in the world. Having confidence also enables one to motivate teams to overcome seemingly insuperable obstacles. Still, as a recent HBR article described, CEO over-confidence has lead to many corporate disasters. Three words will suffice here: AOL Time Warner. OK, while I'm at it, here are two more: Bernie Ebbers.
SSO (Susan the Significant Other) found the new translation of Aurelius at the bookshop yesterday that started me thinking about his Meditations again. She also noticed that the suggested shelving category of the book was "Philosophy/Business". That's rather sad - the publishers felt that their best shot at getting decent sales was to get the book on the Be Better At Business section.

I'm probably being too snobbish, though. The Meditations have survived because successive generations of educated people (educated men, until very recently) have found them applicable to their lives. And many, if not most of those men were in management: managing the church, managing feudal estates, and now, managing businesses.

One might also speculat that the Philosophy/Business categorization is an attempt to straddle the female/male self-help market. I have no data for this, but I suspect that 80% of the readers of business self-help books are male, and 65% of the self-actualization (which is what so much of the "philosophy" shelves are about) market are female.

Saturday, August 16, 2003

Thinking on Aurelius' Meditations

Susan prompted me to buy Gregory Hays' new translation of the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. I thought that commenting on the meditations would be good grist for the blogging mill.

Marcus Aurelius Book 2, 2

Yes, I am flesh, and thinking, and a little spirit. Yes, books are a distraction. Looking inward into the world of my own thoughts, and even easier, looking inward into the world of thinking about other's thoughts is a distraction. I should not allow myself this, but I can't avoid it. I am jerked around by the mess of blood and bone that is my body, and the mess of guilt and fear and jealousy that is my social self. Yes, my mind is a slave, and I shouldn't allow it to be the puppet of selfish impulses. Still, selfish impulses are what make my self, and that is the core of what I have. But I can try to fix on what's outside me; while just as much in flux as anything else, it is the greater part than just the selfish self.
Everything said here is true.
Not everything said here is true.
I can't express my personal philosophy in five words, the way Chuq can. I like this taoist story, though:

Chuang Tzu with his bamboo pole was fishing in Pu river. The Prince of Chu sent two-vice-chancellors with a formal document:
"We hereby appoint you Prime Minister".

Chuang Tzu held his bamboo pole. Still watching the Pu river, he said:
"I am told there is a sacred tortoise, offered and canonized three thousand years ago; venerated by the prince, wrapped in silk, in a precious shrine, on an altar in the Temple.

"What do you think: is it better to give up one's life and leave a sacred shell as an object of cult in a cloud of incense three thousand years, or better to live as a plain turtle dragging its tail in the mud?"

"For the turtle", said the vice-chancellor, "better to live and drag its tail in the mud!"

"Go home!" said Chuang Tzu. "Leave me here to drag my tail in the mud!"

I don't love technology. It fascinates me from time to time, but for its cleverness - nothing more. I'm surrounded by people who have (or affect) a passion for technology. It seems one needs to believe that technology will change the world for the better. I am persuaded that it does, on balance; however, believing that technology is intrinsically good is naive.

I do have a passion for creativity, though. It is evident just looking at the world that somehow humans have figured out alchemy. We can turn base metals into gold. We live longer and better than ever before. Few people would want to move to any time in the past. I wish I knew how this happens. It has something to do with invention; new ways to do things make the world better. At least, they create affluence and reduce pain. The Bessemer steel conversion process, anaesthetics, the wheel; once they've appeared, the world isn't the same again.
Christopher Ireland was inspired by Chuq von Rospach's bio. In turn, it inspired me to have a cut at mine, done in that fashion:

I'm middle-aged, male, and in the no-man's land between being a geek and a wonk. The most successful part of my career was passing exams in high school. The application of the generalized Peter's Principle led to a graduate degree in physics, and the realization that I wasn't any good at same.

At this point I was both over- and under-qualified for any real job. An entrepreneurial start-up fund manager took pity on my, and I worked for five years in what was at that time Britain's largest seed capital fund. The strangest thing is that I'm older now than he was then, and I still feel that I have some time to go before I have to have achieved as much as he had.

I ended up with some savings and the realization that I didn't want to do this kind of work - but no sense of what I did want to do. That much hasn't changed over all these years. I'm still from time to time assailed with doubt over my current job: Is not having anything better to do, an excuse not to change?

Three quarters of the way towards graduating with a BA in sculpture I ended up moving to the US to work for a software company. My only qualification seemed to be that I could think on my feet, and string jargon together in plausible sequences.

Like most people around me, I agonize about the fact that I "work too hard" and "don't have a life." In fact I seldom work much more than sixty hours a week, and I live a charmed life. I have a wonderful partner, a nice house, and the time to study learn Spanish and do tai chi. I prefer non-fiction to the heavy stuff; my favorite magazine is New Scientist.

I don't have a philosophy of life. I've never been able to do anything other than rather timidly put one foot in front of the other. I've been lucky to find myself in interesting places as a result. As a lower middle class kid who's made it to the upper middle, I live in constant fear that something will suddenly take away the good life I've been blessed with.