Smart Heuristics

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.”

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What if he’s right?

In an interview in Der Spiegel last year, Professor Fredmund Malikk
argued that the apparent dynamism of the US economy was largely a statistical illusion. He went on to say:
“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.”?

A Conspiracy of Laughter

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.”

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How To Make Your Own Luck

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.”
Read the rest of the interview here.


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.

Vanity Searching

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

Designing Design

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.”

There should be links

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.

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