...plus c'est la meme chose.
Scanning my bookshelves to find something to read in the bath, I picked out my 1988 edition of John Allen Paulos's book, "Innumeracy". (I will have some more to say about this in a later entry) What struck me was a paragraph on page 70 I opened by chance, which seemed to have a curious contemporary relevance:
"Disproving a claim that something exists is often quite difficult, and this difficulty is often mistaken for evidence that the claim is true. Pat Robertson, the former television evangelist and Presidential candidate, maintained recently that he couldn't prove that there weren't Soviet missile sites in Cuba and therefore there might be. He's right, of course, but neither can I prove that Big Foot doesn't own a small plot of land outside Havana."
"The obscenity of so much executive pay is nothing to do with the market. If there were a market in top executives, companies wouldn't need remuneration committees and consultants to tell them what to pay. Instead, it's based on the delusion of design - the idea that successful companies are or even can be the product of a mind that can foresee all eventualities and deliberately plan for them."
Drifting through the web, looking for something else, I landed on John Brockman's site, The Edge, where I came across a powerful idea and a name I hadn't encountered before. Gerd Gigerenzer and his colleagues seem to be working on what may prove to be a very fruitful way of looking at the human mind. Gigerenzer describes their project in the following terms:
"An important future direction in cognitive science is to understand that human minds are embedded in an environment. This is not the usual way that many psychologists, and of course many economists, think about it. There are many psychological theories about what's in the mind, and there may be all kinds of computations and motives in the mind, but there's very little ecological thinking about what certain cognitive strategies or emotions do for us, and what problems they solve."
Gerd Gigerenzer and his colleague Markus Raab go into their theory in more detail in a paper "Intelligence as Smart Heuristics" (In PDF format). I have only one quibble, which doesn't affect the main thrust of their argument, which is whether some of the things they talk about are algorithms, rather than heuristics.
Stafford Beer, the cybernetician, defined algorithms and heuristics in the following way:
"An algorithm is a technique, or mechanism, which prescribes how to reach a fully specified goal."
"An heuristic specifies a methods of behaving which will tend towards a goal which cannot be precisely specified because we know what it is but not where it is."
And went on to say:
"The strange thing is that we tend to live our lives by heuristics, and to try and control them by algorithms. Our general endeavour is to survive, yet we specify in detail (?catch the 8.45 train', 'ask for a rise') how to get to this unspecified and unspecifiable goal."
Many of the examples given by Gigerenzer and Raab, like catching a ball, look more like algorithms to me. It might be interesting if Gigerenzer and his colleagues were to look at some of the heuristics employed by the "lucky" people described Richard Wiseman.
"I consider the German economy as clearly more efficient that the American. It is relatively easy to lead a large business in America with a huge home market of 275 million people. America never depended on export. To manage a world company from Germany represents a very different demand on leadership."
In a considerably more cautious and measured assessment of the economic prospects of the Eurozone, Martin Wolf in the FT, yesterday, concluded:
"At the beginning of the past decade, few people, if any, supposed the US would outperform Japan in the 1990s. Today few, if any, believe the eurozone could outperform the US in the years ahead. They are probably right. But maybe, just maybe, the eurozone will surprise them all."?
I have long been a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, whose New Yorker articles are reproduced on his site. What I like is the way that in his writing he comes up with fresh insights and unexpected patterns of connections. In one of his latest pieces Group Think:What does 'Saturday Night Live' have in common with German philosophy?"", drawing on Randall Collin's book, "The Sociology of Philosophies", he notes that:
"Collins's point is not that innovation attracts groups but that innovation is found in groups: that it tends to arise out of social interaction?conversation, validation, the intimacy of proximity, and the look in your listener's eye that tells you you're onto something."
He goes on to talk about a group surrounding Erasmus Darwin, who, as described by Jenny Uglow in her book, The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World"", illustrate the importance of informal, social interaction in the process of innovation.
"What were they doing? Darwin, in a lovely phrase, called it "philosophical laughing," which was his way of saying that those who depart from cultural or intellectual consensus need people to walk beside them and laugh with them to give them confidence."
After I first read this I went round confidently misquoting my discovery of "a conspiracy of laughter" to any one who would listen. But as I have found before sometimes a misquote can be as telling as the real thing. I think in this time of what Seth Godin calls the Fundamentalists - people who "believe that they have found the one and only truth, and they can't abide changing old rules in light of new data.", we need as many conspiracies of laughter as we can find.
Scanning the new issue of Fast Company, grabbed by the title "How To Make Your Own Luck", I went first to an interview with Richard Wiseman promoting his new book. What I really enjoyed finding was the following bit from his research that seems to support some of the central ideas in Purposive Drift.
"But the business culture typically worships drive -- setting a goal, single-mindedly pursuing it, and plowing past obstacles. Are you arguing that, to be more lucky, we need to be less focused?
This is one of the most counterintuitive ideas. We are traditionally taught to be really focused, to be really driven, to try really hard at tasks. But in the real world, you've got opportunities all around you. And if you're driven in one direction, you're not going to spot the others. It's about getting people to have various game plans running in their heads. Unlucky people, if they go to a party wanting to meet the love of their life, end up not meeting people who might become close friends or people who might help them in their careers. Being relaxed and open allows lucky people to see what's around them and to maximize what's around them.
Much of business is also about rational analysis: pulling up the spreadsheet, running the numbers, looking at the serious facts. Yet you found that lucky people rely heavily on their gut instincts.
Yes. You don't want to broadly say that whenever you get an intuitive feeling, it's right and you should go with it. But you could be missing out on a massive font of knowledge that you've built up over the years. We are amazingly good at detecting patterns. That's what our brains are set up to do."
Sometimes my enthusiasm for the idea of design gets the better of me. Browsing through Stanley Abercrombie's book on George Nelson. - something I seem to be doing a lot recently - I stumbled across this quote from Nelson and thought that it might be salutary to read it in conjunction with my entry for June 11, "Designing design".
"There is a good deal of soul searching going on among members of the various design professions, but what I encounter is not so much a desire to improve personal capabilities, but worries about the status of the designer, or whether his work has suitable "impact" on the world of his clients. It is a waste of time, all of it. It is merchandising concern, not a desire to develop human potential. (If you are designing a point-of sale display for sugar free gum at the supermarket, a concern for impact is perfectly proper: it sells more gum if handled properly.) Genuine professional concerns lie elsewhere."
Now I am not suggesting Clement Mok is simply indulging in a merchandising concern - though I do (is this a contradiction?) think that designers need to sell themselves better. Part of that better is that I believe that professional designers should be professionals, which means more than simply being mercenaries for hire. An important part of what designers could offer is a professional (in the full sense of the word) perspective as well as set of craft skills.
In another article quoted in the book, Nelson argued:
"It has been the glib assumption of most manufacturers and designers that the prime function of industrial design is the creation of added sales appeal. Actually, this is temporary and superficial aspect of the designer's activity, far less important in a long-term sense than his part in the job of reintegrating a society shattered by the explosive pressure of a new technology or institutions unable to cope with it."
If designers could make and support such a claim, concerns about professional status wouldn't be an issue.
(A note for readers who find Nelson's use of the words "his" and "he" grates - remember at the time he was writing that was the convention - even though it was a convention that masked a reality. Anyway the simple solution is to substitute "hers" and "her" in the appropriate places.)
George Nelson got it right when he said, "The connections game is a process of building patterns. Patterns make things intelligible." In this time of transitions we all need to play the connections game if we are to make any sense of what is going on. But Nelson also threw in a qualifier, "The ability to make connections depends upon the homework you've done"
This is why I was so delighted when I came across an interview with William Gibson, promoting his new book, "Pattern Recognition", where he uses the word "Apophenia". This is defined as "...the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things." But I do think the word would be more useful if the word 'spontaneous' was dropped from the definition.
Human beings do seemed to have a propensity to create patterns of connections. We want to believe in a meaningful world and a world that conforms to our beliefs about it. This is where I think the word 'apophenia', meaning "the perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things" could be a useful tool in our box for building patterns. Checking for apophenia when are playing the connection game, could be a means of seeing whether what we are building is just wishful thinking or a pattern that conforms to our prejudices or whether it is solid enough as guide for action.
If you are looking for a rather longer term perspective on current affairs than those served up by most of the news channels, Imanuel Wallerstein publishes about two commentaries a month where he puts current events into a five hundred year context.
It's amazing what you can stumble across when you go vanity searching. ("Hall of Fame", moi? I know its pathetic, but we all have our low moments when our egos need stroking.) More interestingly "Usability and beyond" does look like a good gateway site, with a very handy, extensive glossary.
11 October 2003 - So much for vanity, this site seems to have disappeared from the cybersphere
My friend Clive Richards sent me the url of Beth Mazur's IDblog which looks like a good gateway in to the world of information design, usability and design in general. Scanning the entries I came across a piece by Clement Mok which should be compulsory reading for all designers. In the piece "Designers: Time for Change" Mok argues that "...designers are currently a divided, fractious lot, whose professional esteem is considerably lower than it should be. Unlike other skilled professionals, designers are viewed as outsiders of uncertain prestige, and are frequently excluded from participation in business enterprises except in a narrowly circumscribed, post-hoc context. A consideration of principles would suggest that a skilled designer should be present throughout a development project, to facilitate cohesion and effectiveness of planning and execution. Instead, designers are often summoned to perform only limited, specific tasks after managerial and fiscal specialists have already made crucial decisions?often inefficiently with little or no depth to their understanding of the dynamics of information and its consequences. These problems all point to the need for us to define, and to design, what is meant by design."
My only real quarrel with Mok's position is that his focus on design is a little narrow and that his argument would have been stronger had he taken the ICSID's definition of design "Design is a creative activity whose aim is to establish the multi-faceted qualities of objects, processes, services and their systems in whole life-cycles. Therefore, design is the central factor of innovative humanisation of technologies and the crucial factor of cultural and economic exchange."
This is an entry without any links. And there should be hundred of links. The life of my friend Rosie Dalziel demanded links. On Monday night she died. She had been ill, but even so the fact that she died so suddenly was a shock. Now normally I would not think that this was an appropriate place to record something of such a personal nature, but part of my reaction to her death falls within some of the underlying themes of what I am trying to do here.
I feel angry. Not unusual you might think, feeling angry when some who might have many more years of life dies. But this was different. This was about what happens to people who are trying to do something genuinely new. This is about how hard and lonely it is to be a pioneer. This is about a life cut short before a powerful vision could be realised. This is about the probability that her death will mean that she never gets the recognition she deserved. And this about the fact that when you put her name in to google there are no links and there should be.
Rosie had a vision of a factory that knew what it was doing. She also knew what technologies needed to be developed to make that vision a reality. I don't know how long she had held that vision, though it must have been at least fifteen years. Fifteen years of slow development. Fifteen years of the project reaching points where it looked as if it must collapse from lack of funds and always she managed to pick it up again. Her work-rate was phenomenal - long, long days, often nights with out sleep. Always the need to raise cash to keep things going.
Rosie had focused on the ceramic tile industry as possibly the most challenging test of her ideas. If they could work there they would almost certainly work in any other traditional batch production industry - wood, leather, food - or indeed any other industry where materials were subjected to a series of different processes.
Her team had their successes. They had a visual inspection machine that could classify tiles as well as any human inspector and in some ways even better and which, unlike a human, could operate effectively 24/7.
Perhaps if she had stopped there, she might have had a more successful business. But in her vision the visual inspection machines were just one component in a network of different kinds of sensor that could measure the critical variables in every stage of the process - a set of feedback loops that would enable the people running a factory to gain a deep, quantifiable knowledge of what was happening and to use that knowledge to monitor and control what was happening in real-time.
Now I guess for many of us all this may sound pretty boring - after all factories are crude, messy places and we know the real action is in this vibrant, creative, knowledge-based economy where we make our living out of thin air (oops and I promised no links. OK here it is).
Rosie was an elegant, sophisticated, somewhat glamorous, woman so why did she choose to devote so much of her life, energy and intellect to something as apparently inelegant, unsophisticated and definitely unglamorous as developing advanced technologies for traditional batch production industries?
Curiously I never asked her that question, so I can only guess. It may have been because she was physicist and the sheer inefficiency of manufacturing industry in terms of the relationship between inputs and outputs may have offended her aesthetic sense. It may have been because she had a great respect for European values and recognised that they needed a strong economic base if they were to be maintained. It may have been because she was a revolutionary and could see that intelligent manufacturing systems would have a massive impact on society as a whole. Or it may simply be that the intellectual challenge of conceiving and bringing together the wide range of disciplines required to create the technologies required to realise the vision was enough in itself. Most probably it was a combination of all these and more.
Whatever the reasons her decision to pursue this vision placed her in a lonely place. I can remember telling her a story about Stafford Beer in one of those low moments when it looked as if her project would fail from lack of resources before she bounced back yet again. Beer had been awarded the Prometheus Medal for innovation. A friend asked him why the medal had that name. Beer replied that he assumed it was because Prometheus had stolen fire from the gods. No, his friend replied, it was because it was an award for innovators and that as punishment for his action Prometheus had been chained to rock with eagles pecking at his liver.
Metaphorically, Rosie spent too much of the fifteen years or so pursuing her vision having her liver pecked by eagles - though vultures or other less noble birds may be a better analogy. And the frustration and anger that some of us who knew feel is that her story didn't seem to have a happy ending. She didn't achieve her vision and now it looks as if there will be no one else to carry it forward.
But, writing this piece made me realise three things that to some extent still my anger.
The first is that while my sympathies and loyalties are with the innovators, recognising the frustrations and loneliness they often have to endure, the barriers to genuine innovations may be a necessary and desirable thing. We need a measure of stability to be able to lead meaningful lives. If innovation was easier we would find ourselves overwhelmed by change. So it may be that the barriers and obstacles face by people trying to do new things are the filters that enable us to absorb the amount of of deep change we can cope with at any one time.
Second, while Rosie's precise vision may not be realised, she was not alone in her endeavour - few scientific and technological ventures are. Somewhere someone is working along similar lines and the revolution in manufacturing practices she was helping to build will happen maybe sooner or maybe later than if she had been able to carry on with her work, but it will happen.
Third, thinking about Rosie, with her amazing ability to hold complex networks of concepts, possibilities and constraints in her head, I was reminded of the following quote:
"I see humanity as a family that has hardly met. I see the meeting of people, bodies, thoughts, emotions or actions as the start of most change. Each link created by a meeting is like a filament, which, if they were all visible, would make the world look as though it is covered in gossamer. Every individual is connected to others, loosely or closely, by a unique combination of filaments which stretch across the frontiers of space and time. Every individual assembles past loyalties, present needs and visions of the future in a web of different contours, with the help of heterogeneous elements borrowed from other individuals; and this constant give-and-take has been the main stimulus of humanity's energy. Once people see themselves as influencing one another, they cannot be merely victims: anyone, however modest, then becomes a person capable of making a difference, minute though it may be, to the shape of reality. New attitudes are not promulgated by law, but spread, almost like an infection, from one person to another."
Theodore Zeldin "An Intimate History of Humanity", Minerva, 1995, pp465-466
Rosie was certainly someone who by her vivid presence made a difference to all who encountered her and while no links to her may show up in google, the invisible links she made will, I am sure, subtly continue to shape our reality.
I've been interested in the idea of blogging for about a year or so. When I first stumbled across the phenomenon in a newspaper article and looked at a few, I was struck by the way it seemed like a return to the spirit of early days of the web. Some of the key sites I used in the early days were the hotlists - collections of urls of interesting stuff on the web. With the good ones, compiled by people who knew what they were talking about, there was a sense of the hotlist as a doorway into an area of ideas. The best blogs have a similar feel with the bonus that the writers often have interesting ideas themselves.
What also struck me was the rebirth of the idea of connection. I don't know whether it was because of the web becoming more commercial or whether there was something else going on, but there seemed to be a growing number of sites that stood as isolated entities. This seemed to be as true of sites put up by individuals as it was for commercial sites. Although I had been aware of this for a while and wondered why it was that the web was increasingly being seen simply as a publishing medium, rather than as a publishing medium that made connections, it didn't fully register with my consciousness.
I guess it hadn't clicked because for most of time my starting point of anything I do on the web was a search engine, first AltaVista and then Google. A search engine is of course nothing but connections, so I missed the point that much of what I was looking at only had connections in and few if any out. So using the web still felt like moving through a network of connections.
What was missing was connections with a point of view. While full-text search engines open up the web in a way that simply wasn't possible before, the one thing they don't provide is perspective. As Alan Kay has put it, ""Perspective is worth 50 points of IQ". Perspective also provides richer information. It's like when you get know a film reviewer's perspective - a damming review from some can often mean that you're sure to like the movie!
I moved from a detached, "isn't this an interesting phenomenon", view of blogging in the period leading up to and during the war in Iraq. There was one site Warblogs:cc , which gave access to a number of blogs that I found myself going to several times a day. It didn't take long for their perspectives to become clear. Some corresponded to my prejudices, others took very different positions. What they did provide was a context where I could get my own position clear, in a way that the newspapers I read and the TV I watched couldn't match.
Tim Berners-Lee once wrote, "I had (and still have) a dream that the Web could be less of a television channel and more of an interactive sea of shared knowledge. I imagine it immersing us as a warm, friendly environment made of the things we and our friends have seen, heard, believed or figured out. I would like it to bring our friends and colleagues closer, in that by working on this knowledge together we can come to better understandings."
My sense is that the astonishing growth in blogging is moving us closer to realising Tim Berners-Lee's dream. And, for that reason, this is one bandwagon I am more than happy to jump on.