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.)