…I need this stuff in my next office.
…I need this stuff in my next office.
Just got these in the mail….
Very exciting, in the way that only a vanishingly small number of grinding, attention-demanding tasks can be.
I sent off the revised draft of my book last Friday, and celebrated this weekend by watching the end of the Tour de France.
the book is back, via flickr
It was great to see an Englishman win the tour (Britain's investment in cycling is paying off, as John Kay notes), and it was also cool to see someone win who was so clear about how much his victory was a team achievement. Yes, Wiggins gets to wear the yellow jersey, but as he himself acknowledges, he stands on the shoulders of his teammates.
I was juxtaposing this to Penelope Trunk's recent essay about self-publishing her book. The piece, a long post on her Brazen Careerist blog, is about how traditional publishers don't know anything about their markets, they take too long to get stuff out, and you're better off doing it yourself. The piece was really striking to me because both in scope and substance it's so different from my recent (or current) experience.
home office, california style, via flickr
First of all, Trunk's account of the publishing industry is all about production and distribution; the work of shaping and editing books is invisible. To me, though, this is about 90% of the value that the publishing industry offers. Fourteen months ago, give or take, I had a very very different idea for a book about contemplative computing. That book might have fit well with an academic press, but it wasn't the book I really wanted to write. I was lucky to have an agent who pushed me to think more commercially without giving up my intellectual bona fides or the ambition of explaining to ordinary users how our deep entanglement with technology shapes us. I was also really lucky, once I'd produced a manuscript, to have an editor who could work with me to tune it up, and who insisted (in that totally self-effacing way most book editors have) on making it more accessible and useful.
Another important way in which our experiences contrast is that Trunk describes books as calling-cards, as a way of introducing to the public who you are and what services you have to offer. Now, this is totally in keeping with the Tom Peters "Brand of Me" way of seeing the world, and I had professors at Wharton who talked about how their books were really just ways of attracting clients, so clearly there are authors who either genuinely feel that a book can play this role, or see reasons to talk about it this way. For me, though, writing this book has been pretty transformative, and I have a hard time imagining starting something this hard with the assumption that there won't be a big personal payout at the end.
it's about ME! via flickr
I'm probably going to experiment with some digital self-publishing in the coming year, though I wouldn't call what I'm going to create electronic books-- more like electronic pamphleteering, or digital broadsheeting. A "book" feels like a different proposition than a highly illustrated, expanded version of a talk. Indeed, it's not just a different proposition, but a promise to readers that the object they're getting has been through a more rigorous kind of review and publishing process.
bytes, via flickr
Indeed, the only way I would self-publish a "book" would be if I could hire editorial talent as strong as Zoë and John, and I'm not sure I'd want to take on the risk of investing that much in a book. It's possible that I could find equivalent talent in the freelance editorial market, but I quite like the idea that lots of other people at Little, Brown share the risk with me, and have an incentive to help the book be a success.
Just as important, I don't want my relationship with an editor to become more transactional. As John Kay recently pointed out, the financial services industry worked best for investors and companies when it was more trust-based; in today's world of super-fast transactions and massive bets, there's less interest in building trust, because you tend to assume that you'll be rich and retired within a couple years. I don't need intellectual relationships that are more transactional. Indeed, I think those two things are polar opposites. Frictionless, transactional relationships are mindless (in Ellen Langer's use of the term), and can just as easily succeed as win-lose games; meaningful relationships involve trust and struggle, and only succeed when both parties succeed.
stay, via flickr
I see tremendous benefit in having a team of people who are invested in your victory, like Team Sky was invested in Wiggins' taking home the yellow jersey. If all you're doing is a straight-on transaction, something you know how to do and really can do on your own, then maybe the self-publishing model works; but the way I write books requires a team.
A while ago I wrote a piece about writing for the trades. As someone who'd written for academic audiences, and for corporate and government clients, it was interesting to take on the challenge of writing a book for a popular audience.
I just finished the first draft of the manuscript-- as in, sent it off to my editor and agent a couple hours ago-- and while it's all still fresh, thought I'd spend a little more time on what I've learned about writing.
The single most important thing is, be organized. The reason I was able to write this draft in a year was that I started the process with a strong, well-organized outline-- an outline that I took very seriously, because it was the basis of my book contract. So that short-circuited all that screwing around you do trying to find the perfect structure. I had one that the publisher liked, and so I was damn well going to stick with it.
Then on a daily basis, this means: organizing your goals for the week, listing out the sections you're going to write, and generally spending as much time as you need to be clear about what you're going to write-- so long as you actually write it. There's always the danger that this kind of prep becomes a substitute for actual word production. Watch out for that.
It also meant always setting up the coffee the night before, and organizing your workspace before bed so you could just sit down and be ready to go.
These are little things, but they make tangible your commitment to the project.
Another is to seek solitude. Turn on Freedom, or LeechBlock, or whatever. Put on the headphones. Before they exist on paper, good words live in a very quiet space, that you can only really reach in solitude. Of course you need to share your work in writing groups, with editors, and (you hope) a very big public. But in order to have ideas good enough to share, you need to seal yourself from everything but the words.
It's like how monastics describe the role of silence in contemplation of the divine. A common theme in monastic practice is that you cannot hear the voice of God, or achieve Enlightenment or satori, or see the ultimate truth, until your soul is quiet and ready. God does not make himself heard over the din. You have to listen for Him.
Another thing that I found really helpful was to stop for the day in mid-thought, or with one more sentence in the paragraph. It had to be something I knew I wouldn't forget, but having that as the first thing I did the next morning really helped me get started. The beginning is always the hardest part, and so if you can make the start of each writing day easier by actually knowing exactly what you're going to say, you'll make your life easier.
I now think that after years of writing, there's a more direct connection between whatever parts of my mind generate good ideas, and the part of my mind that controls my hands. There's a relationship between the physical act of writing and the "mental" act of creating that is not merely linear: I don't have ideas and then write them down. I have ideas because I am writing.
So it's absolutely essential that I spend time at the keyboard.
And I needed something to make it easier, because I was getting up in the pre-dawn hours and writing for an hour or two before anyone else woke up. (Even the dog stayed asleep and didn't follow me out to the living room.) I am absolutely NOT a morning person, but it made a big difference to have that time to myself, and to write in a state where I was actually to tired to distract myself. My semi-conscious brain was better able to stay on target, and whatever good ideas were bubbling up from my subconscious had an easier time reaching the calmer surface of my mind.
This was a complete change from the way I normally write and live. I'm naturally a late sleeper, and so it took real will for me to get up early. But it really did work. I was actually taken by surprise. I figured that having some words under my belt before I took the kids to school would be a psychological boost. What I didn't expect was that the very early morning would actually be a good time to write. But it turns out it was. Everyone should experiment with writing on a different schedule, or in a different way, to see if there are things that work better for them.
Thus endeth the lesson. For now.
Umair Haque has been hanging out in hip New York hotels,
overhearing more than my fair share of Very Serious Conversations* from the movers and shakers of the world.
And boy, have they been tedious.
Haque uses this as a jumping-off point to talk about the "lethally serious" work of "doing stuff that actually matters." He suggests three criteria:
Does it stand the test of time? Ponder this for a moment: the vast majority spend the vast majority of our lives sweating, suffering, and slogging mightily over stuff that's forgotten by next quarter, let alone next year or next century. Call me crazy, but I'd suggest: mattering means building stuff that's awesome enough to last…. Of course, all that really means is that since nearly everyone seems to suck at standing the test of time, you've got a tremendous opportunity not to.
Does it stand the test of excellence?... Mattering means recognizing that everyone's opinion is not created equal — some count more than others, for the simple reason that some opinions are more nuanced, educated, sophisticated, historically grounded, and self-aware than others.
Does it stand the test of you?.... It's one thing to work on stuff that seems sexy because it's socially cool and financially rewarding. But fulfillment doesn't come much from money or cool-power — all the money in the world can't buy you a searing sense of accomplishment.
And I love this conclusion:
Being human is never easy. But that's the point. Perhaps as an unintended consequence of our relentless quest for more, bigger, faster, cheaper, now, we've comfortably acceded to something akin to a minor-league contempt for the richness and grandeur of life unquenchably meaningfully well lived. Hence, call this post my tiny statement of rebellion. Hex me with all the bland management jargon in the world, zap me with all the perfect theories and models you like, but I'll never, ever accept the idea that triviality, mediocrity, and futility are appropriate goals for any human being, much less our grand, splintering systems of human organization.
* I love how Very Serious Conversations, or "Very Serious [insert thing here]" is evolving into an insult. When those two words appear together in a Paul Krugman piece, you know the big guns are being trained on a new target.
Maybe because it's Thanksgiving week, but it's oddly quiet at Cafe Zoe, where I'm now working, as the construction crews are back digging up the Hetch Hetchy.
cafe zoe, via flickr
One of the things we believe about working at home is that it's quieter than the office, but that's only true if you don't have backhoes and giant cement machines chuffing back and forth outside your window.
Today I stole my wife's copy of AHA Perspectives and Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman's essay "No More Plan B," on the need to reform history graduate programs to train people for non-academic jobs. Having written about post-academic life, this is of course a subject that interests me.
I think the Grafton and Grossman essay points in the right direction, and it inspires two suggestions and a caveat.
First, for students in the early stages of the dissertation, it could be tremendously helpful for a department to bring in a literary agent for a day. There are agents who specialize in academic-to-trade crossover projects, and the business is competitive enough for there to be some younger agents who'd find the prospect of representing an entire department interesting. In an afternoon, the agent could explain how the whole selling books for money thing works, and interested students can pitch their dissertations as book proposals.
It wouldn't be the end of the process of turning a thesis into a trade book, but just the beginning; but you have to start somewhere, and if it's possible to craft a Ph.D. with an eye to immediately converting it into a trade press manuscript-- preferably by just stripping out the footnotes and some of the academic framing in chapter 1-- that would do a lot to acculturate young Ph.D.s to the idea that they don't have to make Faustian bargains to make a living writing. (Of course you can if you want, but the academic vs. trade route is not a choice between freedom and serfdom: it's a choice between two different sets of pressures and constraints.)
This would do several things: help demystify the world of trade publishing, give students a sense of how their projects could be crafted for a broader audience, and for at least some, get some funding for the writing. Not every dissertation is the next "Longitude," but I'll bet a surprising number could be crafted for the trades. My agent was phenomenally valuable in both shaping my current book, and without her I'd still be trying to get MIT Press to return my phone calls. Instead, I'm in a very different position.
This might also help deal with a second issue. The biggest thing I had to deal with after finishing my dissertation was a sense of narrowed professional horizons. The cruel irony is that newly-minted history Ph.D.s tend to have a sense that they're LESS able to survive in the world than when they graduated from college, and often less interested in doing so. I'm not really sure there's a whole lot anyone can do to reduce this. It can help to bring in people like me who've had intellectually interesting lives (interesting to me at least) outside academia, but I think graduate school requires internalizing the cultural norms in order to survive-- not to mention justify the intense focus on a narrow subject, deferred income, etc..
At the same time, there's a critical thing that must be maintained in graduate school at all costs. Spaces for contemplation are being torn up faster than rain forests: just look at the mania for collaborative spaces in library architecture, the assumption that knowledge work is all about networking and idea-sharing, the arguments among (both evangelical and liberal) Protestant ministers over bringing social media into church services ("RT Luke 3:16 LOL #atchurch"), etc. etc.
If there is one great thing I got from graduate school that has sustained me in all my professional endeavors, it's the capacity not just to write and produce knowledge-- scholarly knowledge, popular pieces, even slightly disreputable consulting "product" with what Stephen Colbert might call "knowledginess"-- but an understanding that serious thinking really requires time and sustained, slightly manic, attention. There are precious few places outside universities-- and fewer and fewer places within the academic "marketplace of ideas" (kill me now)-- that take the vita contemplativa seriously; one of the best things you can do for students is help them learn how to live that life, and to make it portable.
After a couple months working on it, I've been thinking about the experience of writing a serious non-fiction book. It's been a stretch for me, in quite a good way so far: I'm writing about something big that I'm passionate about, but in a manner that I find new and very challenging.
my backyard office with dog, via flickr
First, writing without footnotes is a pretty liberating experience. I'm the sort of scholarly writer who likes the recapitulate his entire intellectual history in the first five footnotes, and construct a dense thicket of citations to support my main text. If anybody doesn't know, this is part of an academic game that has several goals: creating a defensive barrier below your work that keeps it from being undermined ("well, yes, you would think that's a flaw in my argument if you haven't read these sixteen other things"), creating a place for your work in the literature, and sending little mash notes to people whose work you like. The downside is that this is an enormously time-consuming game, and it's a great way to procrastinate; if you get too caught up in it, it gets harder to actually write.
working at cafe zoë, via flickr
Little Brown doesn't do footnotes; instead, their books have bibliographic essays at the end. This means that I don't have to document every claim I make as I write it; I need to keep track of what I'm doing and where things come from, of course, but there's a whole slice of literary labor that I can forget about. The standard in the industry is also to quote other people sparingly, unless they're Shakespeare or Yogi Berra; as my editor explained, they're buying MY ideas, not my gloss on someone else's.
working at cafe zoë, via flickr
The result of all this has been that I'm writing faster; it also means that I'm constructing a different kind of relationship between this work and my sources, and between my authorial self and other writers in the field.
Put most simply, knowing that I can't impress readers with spectacular acts of citation jujitsu means that I have to make the work itself more compelling, and my own voice more authoritative. A footnote citing half a dozen books can be the intellectual version of an incomplete sentence, an erudite way of saying, "Well, you know..." With this, I have to actually FINISH the thoughts, and make them mine.
reading abraham heschel's The Sabbath, via flickr
The practice of quoting other works has one big benefit: it means I'm doing more interviews with people. Even when I can pull a quote from something a person has written, it's better to quote from an interview. This is, in effect, a great excuse to talk to have conversations with interesting people, which is something I always enjoy. And fortunately they're quite forgiving when we go over things they've already written about; few people actively dislike talking about their work, and most of them know how this game work.
What I find really unexpected is that this kind of authority-- writing that depends more on what the AUTHOR does, than on who the author cites-- is, for me at least, truer to the ideal of scholarly authority. It forces you to take complete responsibility for your ideas. (Even at the Institute, while we didn't use footnotes, we often supported ideas that were challenged by readers (usually clients or prospective clients) by saying, in effect, we're just telling you what our expert sources told us.) You can argue that some writers abuse this, by appropriating other people's ideas, or not sufficiently acknowledging their debts; I hope to avoid that, but I can now see how it happens.
getting pretty deep, via flickr
I've also been struck at how much writing is a business, albeit one that requires a high degree of focus and creativity. Even after editing the Encyclopaedia Britannica, publishing an academic monograph, turning out articles in newspapers, Scientific American, and lots of academic journals, I'm learning a LOT about how the trade book market works, and it's pretty different from everything else.
microsoft research cambridge, via flickr
With my ambitious 1,000 word/day writing schedule, I'm also having to be very ruthless about my time and avoiding distractions. I'm not always successful (WILL JACK EVER ESCAPE FROM THE OTHERS? WHAT THE HELL IS THAT SMOKE MONSTER?), but this kind of writing requires starting early (the days when I'm up before 6, and get some writing done before I have to take the kids to school, are the most satisfying), and not giving up. People who think you get inspired, then rush to the keyboard and write in a creative frenzy, have it exactly backwards: you sit at the keyboard, and hope you can get to that state.
cafe milano, berkeley, via flickr
At the same time, while you need to hit your deadlines, you also need to be creative: anyone can tell the difference between what I've written when I'm really engaged and passionate, and what I write when I'm turning out Product. People don't tell their friends that they have to read this Product; Terry Gross doesn't interviews to writers about Product. They want strong, passionate writing, and creating it is... a challenge.
stimulant, distraction, caffeine, via flickr
Paradoxically, I think setting a 1,000 word/day pace for myself turns out to be a good way to bring on that more creative state, that feeling of being entangled with the work. The more you're able to write to a schedule, the more likely you are to hit those great moments when you feel like you're transcribing ideas that come from somewhere other than your own mind. It can take at least a day to get to that mental state where the ideas really flow well; inspiration doesn't come in a flash, but after a long run-up. Put another way, those states can, to some degree, be induced: you can start wordsmithing and end up doing something really creative. This helps explain Frans Johannsen's observation (in The Medici Effect) that creative people do some of their best, most memorable work when they're doing a LOT of work. We assume that masterpieces are the result of long solitary focus on a single problem, but they're more usually part of a bigger enterprise.
my office in microsoft research cambridge, via flickr
Now back to real writing.
working at cafe zoë, via flickr
From an essay well-known in technical circles:
Exploring the horizons of technology requires courage because research carries risks, even if we cannot always articulate them in advance.... [T]he very nature of research poses its own special risk. In research, we daily face the uncertainty of whether our chosen approach will succeed or fail. We steep ourselves in elusive, mysterious, and unnamed phenomena, and we struggle to unravel very complex puzzles, often making no visible progress for weeks or months, sometimes for years. We strive for simplicity and clarity in a cloudy and often baffling world. The special risk of research starts with the high probability that any particular attempt will fail and follows from the resulting experience of repeated failure. Research carries a special risk of discouragement.
Sutherland also as a nice bit about structured procrastination and how he deals with it:
For me, the urgent often takes the form of a crowded desk that must be cleared. All those letters to write, a timesheet to bring up to date, bills to pay, checkbook to balance, personal computer disk to back up, and a host of other easy little routine tasks are available to help me avoid the difficult big task at hand....
I escape from the local pressures by going far away in an airplane, or not so far to a quiet library, or even closer to the seclusion of my study, particularly early in the morning. The important thing about all these retreats for me is that I can cast aside the urgent problems; the phone won't ring, the checkbook can't be balanced, and I can focus on my larger tasks with a fresh mind.
On this trip I've experimented with leaving my laptop behind and just taking my iPad, and so far it's performed pretty brilliantly. So long as I have an Internet connection I can do pretty much everything I would want to do with a laptop, and even without one I can do about 80% of the things I would normally do with my MacBook Pro.
The thing that makes the difference is the keyboard. Apple makes an excellent Bluetooth keyboard, which is both extremely thin and light, and has a good solid feel: they're full-sized keys, and they have nice throw, so I don't feel like I (or my hands) are compromising. And the difference between writing with a real keyboard, and tapping on the screen, is like night and day: I can tap with more than one finger on each hand, but it's not as fast or accurate as when I'm using real keys. Not only do I make more mistakes, but I can't feel when I make mistakes, the way I do when I'm using a regular keyboard.
Of course, the other thing that makes a big difference in the functionality of the iPad + keyboard is not the device itself, but rather the fact that I've got a bunch of useful material up online that I can access when I'm writing my talks. In particular, my habit of putting pictures up on Flickr is really starting to pay off: as my photography has improved (or at least gotten more quirkily distinctive, and migrated to ever more impressive devices), that's turned into an online repository that I can access when I'm revising my talks and need to illustrate new points.
I would like to see better synchronization between my machine and iDisk, or a feature that automatically backed up files to my iDisk. Or rather, I would like this for my hosts, so they could always have access to the latest version of my talk.
I may go for an adapter to connect the iPad to a monitor, but I really liked being able to carry around the iPad and read my talk off it. I worried that it looked a little dorky, and it probable does; but apparently the aluminum back reflects the stage lights in cool ways, so I'm going to keep reading off it (and maybe look for some holographic cards or such to tape on the back for such occasions). I know it makes me look a little like Jonathan Pryce's evil Rupert Murdoch-like character in that James Bond movie, but c'est la vie.
The other thing I'll have to practice is using it as another display surface, so I can occasionally different images than what's showing in the presentation, or maybe toss our specific words than I want the audience to focus on. Not even technically or logistically difficult: I could just add pictures to the presentation text, and flip over the screen when I want to show something to people.
Though I wonder if the VGA adapter works with the iPhone? Could I do presentations in Keynote and then run them off my phone, while reading the text on the iPad? Must experiment. I should also see what the Keynote remote control is like.
Today we spent a little time getting Heather settled in-- a friend brought over a bike that she can use while she's here, and we got her signed up at the local gym-- then despite my knowledge of Saturday insanity in town, we bought some lights for the bike and did a little food shopping.
As a result, I cooked my first real meal since I got here: a kind of Asian fusion stir fry tikka masala, with rice. (We had had dinner at an Indian restaurant the night before, so I was kind of thinking about Indian food.)
dinner ingredients, via flickr
I'm not exactly sure how much I should document life within the lab, so I'm going to err on the side of opacity rather than transparency. Still, I have to say something.
the lab at night, via flickr
Turns out a second article of mine, on the role of paper spaces in collaborative and creative work, appeared in today's issue of the Parsons Journal for Information Mapping. The long weekend pushed several publication dates back, so things are showing up all at once.
One more article and I get a set of steak knives.
The Scientific American Web site has the cubesats piece co-authored by myself and Bob Twiggs. You can only read the first two paragraphs, but you can see our byline, which let's face it, is all I really care about. Well, that and getting paid.
Last week was spent getting oriented, shaking (or drinking or sleeping) off the jet lag, and dealing with logistical stuff; now I'm finally getting down to work, inasmuch as thinking ever counts as work.
I've started writing about my work on the Contemplative Computing blog, though if you want to cut to the chase, check out the Prezi that gives an overview of the project.
After a decent (and resonably-timed) night's sleep, I had my first full day at the Lab, uninterrupted by 3-hour detours to the bank, visits to the cellphone store, etc. Until today, I'd been around, but not really present: physically there, and certainly interested in everything, but no able to spend enough time in a day to really start engaging with the place and people.
After many months of proposals, preparation, visas, rallying parents, reassuring children, and wondering how elderly cats would handle it, I'm finally in England-- in Cambridge, starting my three-month visit at Microsoft Research.
I started last night, on the evening flight out of San Francisco, and ended around dinnertime, when I got into the flat (technically a terrace house, I think) we're subletting. About 18 hours all told, though none of it was really stressful: heavy yes, thanks to my having brought two suitcases (I am going to be here for three months, after all), but not really difficult. The bus even took me into downtown Cambridge, more or less, to the station on the edge of Parker's Piece, rather than the car and park on the edge of town (damn you, National Express Web site-- I could only buy a ticket as far as the Park and Ride on the edge of town, but the driver was fine about letting me go into city centre).
After I got things more or less sorted out I went out and wandered around the town a little. Naturally I headed for the town center, walking past St. John's and Gonville and Caius, then up along the market.
This has turned into a rather busy week: in addition to scheduling several interviews for a new project, I've been dealing with the last edits to my long-developing piece on cubesats, which appears headed for the February issue of Scientific American. Incredible.
working on the edits, via flickr
I've had a great time working with my co-author (I need to collaborate on more articles-- it really is a good experience), but still it'll be really nice to have that piece out. I suspect there could be an interesting short book in here.
I recently had an epiphany about writing. My academic training hammered into me the idea that ideas need time to mature, that more time in the tumbler of your mind would only improve the brilliance your argument, and that books should be long and take years and years to write. In order to guarantee that your work is well-regarded and stands the test of time, you need to write carefully and deliberately.
But what if that's backward in an important respect? What if importance and timelessness-- that elusive quality that gives ideas a life far beyond the author's-- aren't things that authors can really control, but are constructed almost entirely after the fact, but readers and reviewers and respondents?
coffee at Cafe Zoë, via flickr
That suggests that you should write a lot, in order to give your ideas a better chance of surviving the Darwinian competition between ideas: like salmon, only a few will make it to adulthood, so your strategy should be one of fruitfulness rather than intentional profundity. You should get books out quickly while the ideas are still timely-- and thus, ironically, make them more likely to be regarded by readers and critics as timeless. Put out the best work possible in Prolific Mode rather than Thorough Mode, and just accept that only some of it will survive.
I don't know if I can actually pull that off, and I know lots of writers will consider this completely pedestrian an insight, but I think it's worth a try.
[To the tune of Tzimon Barto, "Preludes: Prelude No. 8 in F sharp minor (Molto agitato)," from the album Chopin: Preludes & Nocturnes (a ^r-star song, imo).]
I've hesitated to write anything about this, mainly because I haven't really believed my good fortune, but now that the paperwork is taken care of and we're on to logistics: I'm going to spend three months next year as a visiting fellow at Microsoft Research Cambridge. I'll be working in the Socio-Digital Systems group, but MSR has some great stuff going on in other areas I care about-- the Science2020 project was run there-- and of course Cambridge itself is insanely interesting.
My appointment will run from mid-January to early April, which should offer a couple months of relative cold, damp darkness-- in other words, perfect weather for thinking seriously. And spending evenings in pubs.
It occurred to me recently that even though I travel a lot, and have been to England several times in the last few years, I haven't lived abroad for any length of time since I was an exchange student in Japan. I was actually offered a history of science postdoc at Cambridge almost exactly twenty years ago, but turned it down to take another (longer) fellowship at Berkeley. That always felt like one of those choices that marked two clearly different paths in my life; but I loved Berkeley and met my wife when I was there, so it's not like it worked out badly.
Still, it'll be cool to finally make it to England.
Today, at long last, the kids went back to school. Peninsula starts late-- I interpret it as yet another test of parental loyalty to the institution, a kind of Hell Week ritual-- and this last week I've more or less played full-time dad.
Fortunately the kids are old enough to manage themselves much of the time, and if you get several of them together they're pretty self-entertaining: on good days I could make a couple large bowls of popcorn, give one of them a watch and tell them not to bother me until lunch, and crank up the headphones. If you're lucky, though, even then you can get to about 50% attention.
Not that I'm really complaining. While it's never easy, it's always worth it to be a parent, and I'm grateful to have the kind of life where I can devote time to them. And frankly, the world won't end because I couldn't focus enough to finish revisions to the social scanning article last week (the reviewers were pretty kind to me, so they shouldn't be too hard).
Still, it's nice to have the space to sink into a text and ideas.
Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker suggests "if you want to write, get threatened:"
I've been writing for a living for around 15 years now and whatever method I practise remains a mystery. It's random. Some days I'll rapidly thump out an article in a steady daze, scarcely aware of my own breath. Other times it's like slowly dragging individual letters of the alphabet from a mire of cold glue. The difference, I think, is the degree of self-awareness. When you're consciously trying to write, the words just don't come out. Every sentence is a creaking struggle, and staring out the window with a vague sense of desperation rapidly becomes a coping strategy. To function efficiently as a writer, 95% of your brain has to teleport off into nowhere, taking its neuroses with it, leaving the confident, playful 5% alone to operate the controls. To put it another way: words are like cockroaches; only once the lights are off do they feel free to scuttle around on the kitchen floor. I'm sure I could think of a more terrible analogy than that given another 100,000 years.
A while ago I wrote about reinventing academic talks. It got me thinking about how to better design workshops or conferences that bring together scholars or scientists (who, broadly speaking, like to think about stuff) with policy people, corporate strategists, and military people (who, broadly speaking, also like to think, but really like to DO).
It's a space I've been exploring in my consulting practice this past year, and I just posted a piece on Future2 on the opportunities we now have to reinvent events on the academic / real-world boundary.
Peter Bregman reports on multitasking and its perils:
Doing several things at once is a trick we play on ourselves, thinking we're getting more done. In reality, our productivity goes down by as much as 40%. We don't actually multitask. We switch-task, rapidly shifting from one thing to another, interrupting ourselves unproductively, and losing time in the process.
You might think you're different, that you've done it so much you've become good at it. Practice makes perfect and all that.
But you'd be wrong. Research shows that heavy multitaskers are less competent at doing several things at once than light multitaskers. In other words, in contrast to almost everything else in your life, the more you multitask, the worse you are at it. Practice, in this case, works against you.
I decided to do an experiment. For one week I would do no multitasking and see what happened. What techniques would help? Could I sustain a focus on one thing at a time for that long?
For the most part, I succeeded. If I was on the phone, all I did was talk or listen on the phone. In a meeting I did nothing but focus on the meeting. Any interruptions — email, a knock on the door — I held off until I finished what I was working on.
Because I'm a whore for attention, or perhaps want to put put all my friends to sleep (only I know for sure), I've posted my latest article, "Paper Spaces: Visualizing the Future," on Future2.
So my article on the future of futures (the serious version, not the parody) has actually been published. Ironically, because of the limitations of the Stanford library's subscription, I can't see it.
However, I'm sure I'll get the reprints soon. For those who have access to the journal, the official version is here.
I also notice that my former IFTF colleague Jody Ranck co-authored an article in the same issue on health foresight.
I have lots of other work on my plate, clients and editors who I don't want to disappoint, and am taking the family to Colorado for the weekend (to see my folks before they relocate to Singapore in January). So I'm trying to focus.
She's normally aloof to the point of anti-social, but for some reason my cat decided to spend the morning on my lap.
I've had better writing surfaces, frankly.
I saw this in a Palo Alto store window a few weeks ago, on my last day at the Institute:
Paul Graham on "the anatomy of determination:"
In most domains, talent is overrated compared to determination—partly because it makes a better story, partly because it gives onlookers an excuse for being lazy, and partly because after a while determination starts to look like talent.
The whole piece is well worth reading.
For knowledge workers, is there really any such thing as "work?" Does the concept of work have any real utility if the boundaries between it and play, travel, networking, etc. are blurred? And when it's possible to spend a lot of time "working" on something, get 90% done, and never deliver?
Maybe "work" as a conceptual category no longer has much utility for organizing our days and time, and we should think in terms of what we've completed and shipped, not what we're "working on."
A couple days ago I posted a quote from Matt Yglesias about the danger bold predictors have of becoming cranks. Today, via the Freakonomics blog, I came across an argument about the relationship between the spread of antidepressants and stock market bubbles.
In 2000, Slate contributor Robert Wright noted that a "psychiatrist is now speculating that maybe Prozac and other antidepressants are being gobbled in such volume as to account for the stock market's seemingly unshakeable self-esteem." University of Michigan professor Randolph Nesse proposed "the possibility that this market is different because investor's brains are different."
What percent of brokers, dealers, and investors are taking antidepressant drugs? Wealthy, stressed urbanites are especially likely to use them. I would not be surprised to learn that one in four large investors has used some kind of mood-altering drug. What effects do these drugs have on investment behavior? We don't know.... From seeing many patients who take such agents, I know that some experience only improved mood, often a miraculous and even life-saving change. Others, however, report that they become far less cautious than they were before, worrying too little about real dangers. This is exactly the mind-set of many current investors.
Human nature has always given rise to booms and bubbles, followed by crashes and depressions. But if investor caution is being inhibited by psychotropic drugs, bubbles could grow larger than usual before they pop, with potentially catastrophic economic and political consequences.
So, Big Money contributor Caitlin McDevitt asks, "Did Prozac cause the most recent market free fall? Seems like a stretch, but if so, then maybe the 'great recession' should have been called a 'depression all along."
Given that I work a lot with groups in workshops, it makes me wonder: if you could convince everyone in a workshop to take Prozac (or some other mood-altering drug), what kind of results would you get? Would people be more open to crazy scenarios? Would a map of the future be all about the Singularity or talking unicorns bringing world peace? Or-- the more interesting possibility-- would the results be awful because people wouldn't care about the future? (I doubt I'll get the chance to test the theory any time soon.)
However, there are other things I am experimenting with that don't require medical supervision, but which I hope deliver some improvements in workshops. Changing the food is one.
I don't buy the idea that if you feed people marinated tofu you'll make them smart; but we know a lot about how our brains respond to foods in general, and can design food into workshops in ways that keep people active and well-fed, but don't make them sated and sluggish. For a while I've suspected that caterers unintentionally undermine good meetings and workshops by serving so many pastries, bagels, and coffee. Turns out these are foods that tend to be high on the glycemic index, or sugary things that overstimulate people and encourage the production of memory-impairing hormones like cortisol.
So I'm not only trying to get different foods into my events; I'm also serving them differently, distributing them more evenly through the day so people aren't tempted to overeat and then crash. We'll see if it makes a difference in the energy levels of the workshops, and the results.
Author and creative writing teacher Rachel Toor writes in the latest Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) about the problems of either dashing off talks the night before, or just reading papers:
More often than I can believe, someone will preface a reading by saying, "I just wrote this last night." Why on earth, I wonder, would you read something that raw? Generally public readings are set up months in advance. It's not like the speakers don't know they're going to have to have something ready.... But then I remembered that arrogance is often the conjoined twin of insecurity. What those writers wanted us to know, perhaps, was that this new work was the result of pure talent: Just think, audience, how good this would be if it were coupled with labor? If the piece stinks, it's simply a matter of timing. It's not my fault. I could do better, really, I could. I just didn't have the time....
Most academics don't present hastily written papers. But they do something almost as bad. They read their papers aloud. Some professors read their lectures. It's common practice, I know, but frankly, it bugs me. It's hard enough for an audience to follow a short story, where, presumably, some attention is being paid to crafting narrative tension. Having to track audibly an argument written in long, convoluted sentences and leaden, jargon-ridden prose can feel like a forced drowning.... Reading instead of presenting is, I think, the academic equivalent of "I just dashed this off last night." It's an act borne out of (choose as many as apply): fear, insecurity, arrogance, procrastination, habit, poor training, or lack of regard for the audience. It's also just plain lazy. It's a lot of work to think something through and then write it out as a conference paper. Taking the next step—understanding what you've done and figuring out how to summarize it extemporaneously—seems to be one that many are willing to forsake.
The piece is a reminder of just how different the kinds of talks I've done for the last few years, and the sorts of intellectual events I'm usually involved in, are from conventional academic presentations. I spend huge amounts of time preparing for the workshops I facilitate: I go over every activity, every breakout session, think about the posters I need to create, the instructions I should give, what I should and shouldn't say, and what outcomes the client and I want.
All this preparation generates one of two things: artifacts and other materials that help organize an event (or that help participants stay self-organized and -aware of what they're supposed to be doing); and a clearer understanding of what I need to do for the day to succeed. What that preparation doesn't generate is a perfectly-planned day: all that planning, I know, is to prepare me to succeed despite the fact that something is going to happen that requires me to adapt and adjust.
What you absolutely cannot do in an environment like this is throw something together the night before; nor can you write it all out and assume you can just follow the script mindlessly-- the two options Toor describes.
Why are these events so different? Two reasons. First, the faciltiated workshop, much more than the academic conference, is explicitly about the production of shared meaning. The aim after a day or two is to have a common vision of the future, a common roadmap, and common understanding of what an organization's strategy should be. You don't necessarily have that as an outcome of a scholarly conference. Second, workshops are a means to an end, not an end in themselves: they're supposed to catalyze action, not be the end of action.
With the proliferation of interesting kinds of workshops, novel forms of meetings, and now the rise of the unconference, I think it's high time we thought about how we could reinvent academic (maybe mainly humanities) conferences. There's no reason we can't create a better model, that satisfies conference speakers' professional needs (e.g., the line on the c.v., the publicity, the chance to interview for jobs) and personal ones (e.g., the opportunity for subsidized travel to see your friends), as well as the needs of conference organizers and the profession/discipline as a whole-- and is a lot more interesting and engaging. So many academic events I go to end on an optimistic note, or generate lots of interest in moving on to actually doing something... but then dissipate, and at best yield an edited volume. Sitting in a stuffy (or over air-conditioned) hotel conference room, listening to someone read a talk, and feeling the collective interest and enthusiasm generated by the event evaporate days afterward-- aren't there better ways we could all spend our time?
Seriously, I'd really like to do this.
Paul Graham has a nice post on the different ways managers and "makers" divide up time:
There are two types of schedule, which I'll call the manager's schedule and the maker's schedule. The manager's schedule is for bosses. It's embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you're doing every hour.
When you use time that way, it's merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you're done.
Most powerful people are on the manager's schedule. It's the schedule of command. But there's another way of using time that's common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started.
When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting.
When I read this, I thought, this explains why I found meetings so disruptive to my days. I'm a pretty social person, but I find myself increasingly aware of the need to create large blocks of time during which I can really get into a subject, and planning my days so all calls and meetings are loaded into a certain period, rather than spread throughout the day.
Graham's essay also echoes the distinction E. P. Thompson made in his classic article "Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism," between time-oriented work and task-oriented work, in his famous article on time consciousness in the early Industrial Revolution. Pre-industrial work, Thompson argued, was task-oriented: whether you worked in the fields or town, the rhythm of your working day wasn't determined by a clock, but by Nature and the work you needed to get done. With the rise of the factory system, and the growing specialization of labor within factories, the rhythms of work were defined not by organic tasks, but by machines and the factory itself: you worked a certain number of hours a day, and then you stopped. Work was no longer task-oriented, but time-oriented.
Of course, there are types of work that have always remained task-oriented, even when we're measuring or regulating or standardizing them using time. Cooking is one. Parenting is another. Babies are as demanding as any factory-owner, but as any new parent will tell you, they run very much on their own clocks. But today, when the two are at odds, task-orientation loses out to time-orientation: managers set meeting times for subordinates, some of whom are likely to be young mothers. As Judith Schulevitz argues,
The politics of time are hugely significant for women because the temporality of motherhood is strictly at odds with the temporality of work... Motherhood follows not just a pre-industrial schedule but a biological one as well. (The two are related.) Women have to have their babies before they become infertile, and once their children are born, they have to meet their needs then, not later. As we learn more about the psychological and physiological benefits to a baby of being soundly attached to a mother or father figure, the importance of love for brain development, not just personality formation, we get an ever clearer sense of the cost to children of depriving their parents of the means to spend time with them, especially when they’re young. Under current social arrangements, however, motherhood and fatherhood clocks clash with most career clocks, so parents who spend that time often pay a high price for doing so.
One of the things I think I'm going to have to do more ruthlessly is control my time: not just "manage" it better, but think more clearly about what kinds of time I need. I've done this pretty well for space and other resources, but time is something that I've tended to think of merely as a scarce but relatively undifferentiated resource. High time, as it were, to figure out how I can better balance tasks and time, and the different kinds of discipline required to satisfy each.
One of the more exciting things I worked on when I was at IFTF was a project with Kitchen Budapest, an innovation lab in Hungary that Anthony and I kind of stumbled across. I've been using their fantastic presentation tool Prezi for a while, and it's now getting some well-deserved attention.
I've been waiting a while for this functionality, and am glad it's finally out!
In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes about 10,000 hours to master something-- computer programming, classical violin, tennis, what have you. I've been working as a futurist for almost a decade; I don't know if I've done 10,000 hours of decent work, but I have some feel for how the field works, and what we're good at.
About a year ago-- okay, more like two years ago-- Angela Wilkinson, a friend who runs the scenario planning master classes at the Saïd Business School, invited me to write a think-piece about the field. I took it as an occasion to run a thought experiment: if you were to start with a clean sheet of paper-- if there was no Global Business Network, no IFTF, no organized or professionalized efforts to forecast the future-- what would the field look like? What kinds of problems would it tackle? What kinds of science would it draw on? And how would it try to make its impact felt?
As I got into it, I concluded that a new field would look very different from the one I've worked in for the last decade. This essay (it's a PDF, about 260kb) is a first draft at an effort to explain where I think we could go. Lots of what I talk about will be familiar to my colleagues, and indeed to anyone reasonably well-read; but I think there's utility in synthesis and summary, if only to see connections between literatures and chart one's next steps.
All the usual caveats apply: it's unpublished, it's unfinished, it doesn't reflect the thinking of any of the various institutions I'm associated with, all the errors are mine, there are plenty of things I could have talked about but didn't. But so does the usual invitation to comment on it. I could keep tinkering with it, but at this stage I think it's more useful for me to take a step back, work on some other things, and return to it with fresh eyes.
Angela had in mind something quick, short, and provocative. I definitely missed the first two. Angela, I'm sorry to have kept you waiting.
Update, 22 July 2009: I've posted a slightly updated version of the essay, and also reproduced the introduction below the jump.
SciBarCamp is done. Other than a lot of excellent leftover Pakistani food, a surprising amount of beer, and a photo set on Flickr, you'd never know we hosted 60+ people for two days. Time for a bit of reflection.
Wednesday morning, as I was getting the Institute's conference space ready for SciBarCamp-- hauling tables, moving chairs, trying to figure out how to get sixty people into our large conference room, calculating how many and what kinds of signs we needed to put to up to help guests find the wifi, bathrooms, etc.-- I overhead someone say, "What I love about these things is that you don't have to do any preparation. You just show up."
Events like these may look like they're spontaneous and free, but that's only because someone has set up the environment in which it takes place. That labor shouldn't really be visible to the participants-- like all infrastructure, its purpose is to be useful, not to call attention to itself-- but it is essential to the success of even the loosest and most improvisational event. To make a brief comparison to music: the most brilliant jazz improvisers, people like Keith Jarrett and Ornette Coleman, aren't brilliant because they just get up onstage and do whatever comes into their heads: they're brilliant because they've played for thousands and thousands of hours, are highly disciplined, have great training... and bring all that to the concert hall. [Update: See Fred Kaplan on creativity in jazz.] Likewise, when I travel, I like to be able to wander around and explore things; but I can do that because I carry a pack that has all kinds of things that I find useful, and come in handy under a variety of circumstances. (Preparation is likewise important for biking and cooking, and other things.)
The Institute's conferences are scripted to the minute, the presentations are rehearsed endlessly, group exercises are agonized over. There's a lot of top-down structure, because we have a lot of content to share, and because it's hard for most people to think about the future in an orderly way. People, we assume, need the structure we provide in order to translate our work into terms that will be useful to them. So the bar camp model is one that I find very interesting.
But the camp isn't just the absence of organization: that wouldn't be a bar camp, it would just be chaos. There is structure here, and I want to understand what it is.
I was talking to Jamie McQuay, one of the organizers of this year's camp and a veteran of the bar camp scene, about the ingredients for a successful bar camp. He said that the two things you really need are free space (which saves the organizers money and time, and cuts down on the number of sponsors you have to look for), and interesting people. Tantek Çelik, a camp veteran, told me that all you really need are physical and virtual spaces-- a conference venue and a wiki.
But my sense is that there's more to it than that.
There's a cultural element to the camps that I think is important. People here are veterans of academic meetings, scientific society conferences, and industry trade shows, and know that world well enough to be intelligently dissatisfied by it. (I had a professor who said you couldn't rebel effectively against Catholicism unless you had been educated by Jesuits. Not Franciscans or Dominicans, mind you-- Jesuits. Truly, give me the child until he's seven, and he's ours forever.) When you have an event that's a mirror-world of the traditional conference, you need to know what the traditional conference is like, so you can do the opposite. I would draw a comparison to Wikipedia. One of the usually unacknowledged reasons Wikipedia works is because people know, or think they know, what encyclopedia articles are supposed to sound like: readers and creators alike share a basic understanding of what they should be doing.
I also suspect a good bar camp also requires some minimum number of people who are veterans of the camp scene, and can catalyze others and acculturate novices. I'm not sure what that number is. Tantek said that return attendees are like culture in yogurt, which I think is a good comparison.
I think there are also some practical things that you can do that I've listed after the jump. None are especially profound, but they'd all make the event work better, and are worth paying attention to. But what else is there? Besides physical and virtual space, interesting people, a familiarity with conventional conferences, and perhaps some elusive bare minimum of people who've been to bar camps before, are there other things that a successful camp needs?
In the last few days I've been doing a lot of stuff: biking, organizing a Memorial Day dinner, preparing for a week-long trip to the East Coast, thinking about the craft and design of workshops. (These are the expert workshops that I organize all over the place.)
In many ways these are very different activities, but I really enjoy them all. I recently realized that despite their differences, they actually share a few qualities.
1) They're active, embodied knowledge.
Obviously bicycling is physical, but cooking is a nice combination of fine motor skill and lifting big heavy things (or in my case, avoiding setting myself on fire); you're always on your feet in a workshop; and travel is pretty physically strenuous, for good and bad reasons. Maybe I'm getting older, I'm less of a couch potato, or my ADD is increasing (and I know these are somewhat mutually exclusive explanations), but I find my patience with sitting for long hours and just reading is decreasing. I can do it, but I'm happier engaging my body. And nothing is better than activities where you're involving your body, but you have to think about what you're doing. (Gregg Zachary had a great piece last year on the rediscovery of the virtues of manual work. I'm part of a movement.)
cycling hunter's point, via flickr
Like Richard Sennett's craftsman (and I really recommend his book), I enjoy things that are physical or tangible, but also engage the mind. Thoughtful action is where it's at.
gestural interface missile command, via flickr
2) There are real deadlines.
My capacity for finishing things that have open-ended deadlines, or fake deadlines ("so we all agree that we'll finish our tasks by next week, right? right?"), is plummeting to near zero. I have too much other stuff in my life that absolutely has to get done.
hard deadlines: flames don't wait, via flickr
So hard deadlines are good for me now. Essential even. The workshop starts at exactly this time, the plane leaves at exactly that time, the guests are arriving now.
Hard deadlines also put a nice bound on craftwork, by preventing you from tinkering forever with something. A paragraph could always be better, but as Sennett writes, the demands of the trade force craftsmen to accept limits, to do the best job they can within the time they have, and to learn to be satisfied with that. As graphic designers say, "Finished is Good."
3) They require preparation.
The day of the cookout, I spent hours chopping vegetables, checking marinades, cleaning off platters (you can never have too many platters at a BBQ), locating plates and cups, setting up staging areas for food and drinks, laying out tools, etc. (I noticed, though, that this wasn't tedious, it was pleasant. It was a classic example of what Csíkszentmihályi calls flow.)
Likewise, when you travel, you've got to think a lot about what to pack, how to structure your time, how to get among different places, etc.. A bike won't work with a flat tire, nor will a cyclist work if he's dehydrated, so you'd better be prepared for those possibilities. Every ride requires some kind of adjustment: technical climbs mess up gears; thorns flatten tires; I get hungry. Having the resources to deal with those things lets me keep riding.
With workshops, you have to think in advance about everything, and I mean everything: you have to go over the agenda minute-by-minute, think about the flow of the day, tinker with questions and exercises to eliminate ambiguity and focus people, lay out materials, move the furniture around, make sure the caterers know when to appear, etc., etc. (Indeed, there are things that we normally don't think about that I'd like to start experimenting with, like lighting and ambient sound, making some activities more embodied and physical-- sitting is exhausting-- and playing with the day's menu to keep people from getting weighed down by muffins and too much coffee.)
Good preparation doesn't require you to think just about one thing. It requires you to think about a lot of different things, big and small; to think about timing and process; about division of labor; about contingencies and strategies. That's part of what makes it pleasant.
future of science workshop, malaysia, via flickr
But here's the important thing.
Some of that preparation is meant to help you keep things on track, and do things exactly the right way. But most serious preparation isn't about scripting. Rather, its about making it possible for you to adapt to whatever actually happens. I've never had a workshop run exactly the way I imagined it would: more people show up, they turn out to be interested in other things than we'd discussed before, the room isn't laid out the way we expected-- a thousand different things can go akimbo.
I used to think that the point of planning workshops in such great detail was so I'd have more control over them. Wrong. You never have control. You have whatever you have when you get in the room. The point of doing all that planning is to deeply understand the intentionality and philosophy behind the workshop, so you can improvise your way to the same end-point, and you have the tools at hand to do so.
perimeter institute, waterloo, via flickr
[Update: I've realized that this is my complaint about humanities graduate training: it socializes you to believe that you possess skills that are useful only in a very specific future-- namely tenure track jobs in your field-- and train you to believe that you're less qualified to succeed at a different future, and that any other future is a failure.]
If you know that you're going to go off the map-- if events are going to conspire to send you in another direction, and they will-- the best that you can do is have the right gear, and a clear picture of where you want to go.
4) They have serendipity.
The upside of plans not working out the way you expect is that they can work out better. Sometimes the very coolest thing isn't on the map, and the only way to find it is to venture into the unknown.
One of the great pleasures of having a big party is that mixing up friends who don't know each other can have pleasant results for everyone. The best rides are ones that have a brilliant hill and view that you didn't know about. The best trips are the ones that expose you to something you've never seen before, or didn't even know was cool. I fell in love with Budapest not because I'd always wanted to go there, but because it's an amazing, complicated, Old World post-socialist place that I find alternately fascinating and frustrating. I love London because it rewards walking: I know it well enough to be able to navigate by Tube or on foot, but every time I go out in the evening I discover something-- a little square, a park, a row of businesses-- that charms and captivates, and that I'd never heard of.
surprise in the london underground, via flickr
Workshops have serendipity too. Tons of it. You want to build connections between ideas or fields that even experts hadn't seen before, or explore the cross-impact of trends that people normally think about separately. When that works, the results are awesome-- and the amazing thing is, the results are awesome a lot more often than you'd expect. You never know what the outcome of a workshop is going to be-- and if you do, there's really no point in having it in the first place. This doesn't mean that a workshop shouldn't have certain goals or deliverables; far from it. But it's like an evening walk in London: you know where you're going to end up, you know that there are certain landmarks you'll pass, but you don't know what else you're going to see along the way. Your job is to be open to the serendipity, so you can take advantage of it.
5) They draw out people.
I mean this in two senses. First, they can push you do things you didn't know you could. Good rides challenge you to do things you didn't think you were capable of, or leave you exhausted by happy with your performance.
Second, they open up a space for people to contribute. My wife used the cookout as an opportunity to repot a bunch of flowers in the backyard, dig out and repot some aging bamboo, and do other things on her gardening/home improvement list. Once kids started arriving, my daughter made (or taught the kids how make) balloon swords, which they then played with all evening. I hadn't thought of either of these, but people commented on how nice the backyard looked, and the kids all left exhausted and uninjured. Win.
perimeter institute, waterloo, via flickr
Workshops require both kinds of drawing out. Running a workshop isn't an exercise in controlling other people, but it's a hard task to create a venue in which everyone can think seriously, think differently, and think together.
It's also not about getting a certain result, but about creating the conditions out of which interesting new things will emerge. Of course, workshops have objectives, but as a facilitator, you have to approach them obliquely, and recognize that the actual work and thinking will be done by participants: you're just ("just" isn't quite the right word!) there to help make it happen.
workshop in laxenburg, astria via flickr
6) Sometimes you can push, but mainly you have to flow.
You can challenge people, but you can't order them to be innovative. You can try to get guests to mingle or introduce them to each other, but you can't make them be chatty and friendly. You can also push yourself, but you must recognize that pushing doesn't get you everything: you can get to the airport on time, but you can't control the weather and need to be able to go with whatever the situation presents.
my son on a happier ride
This morning I got an unexpected lesson on pushing versus flow from my son. We were biking to school, and he has the habit of standing up while pedaling. I can't get him to stop (he's seven, after all), so I was trying to teach him how to do it in a way that maintains his balance. He got frustrated and mad, which made him distracted; and so he took a spill. Bad enough to break the mirror on his bike, add a couple nicks to the brakes or handlebars, and require some ice and band-aids when he got to school. Fortunately nothing on him was broken, and he'll be fine.
As I try to tell the kids, biking is one of those things that demands mindfulness: you have to watch the road, know what gear you're in, know where the cars are, know how tired you are. You can push yourself, but if you lose your concentration-- if you lose the flow-- you're likely to crash. In the course of pushing him, I made him lose what little flow he had.
Still, any spill that doesn't send you to urgent care is a learning opportunity, not an accident. And as a friend of mine wrote after hearing about the crash,
But falling is an essential part of growth. It teaches you where the boundaries are. If you never push hard enough to fall, you will never know if you could grow twice as much or twice as fast-- because you are playing it safe.
So across all these activities-- and maybe across everything you do-- hitting that mix of pushing and flow, planning but staying open to serendipty, and being active is key.
I've recently been reading about craft--in particular Richard Sennett's dense but serious and amazing book, The Craftsman-- and so this quote from David Rakoff's Get Too Comfortable, sent to me by my colleague Jason, jumped out at me.
During the act of making something, I experience a kind of blissful absence of the self and a loss of time. When I am done, I return to both feeling as restored as if I had been on a trip. I almost never get this feeling any other way. I once spent sixteen hours making 150 wedding invitations by hand and was not for one instant of that time tempted to eat or look at my watch. By contrast, if seated at the computer, I check my email conservatively 30,000 times a day. When I am writing, I must have a snack, call a friend, or abuse myself every ten minutes. I used to think that this was nothing more than the difference between those things we do for love and those we do for money. But that can't be the whole story. I didn't always write for a living, and even back when it was my most fondly held dream to one day be able to do so, writing was always difficult. Writing is like pulling teeth.
From my dick.
Spent a very interesting evening at Obscura Digital, a company in San Francisco.
Obscura does really interesting media installation / augmented reality / giant screen stuff, mainly for Fortune 50 companies.
They had a really interesting haptic version of the old game Missile Command. I enjoyed playing it, even though I kind of sucked at it.
Day 1 of the Technology Horizons conference.
I've got a new short article at Seedmagazine.com, on automated scientific discovery and the sociology of knowledge. Sounds fascinating, I know, but it really is a better read than I make it sound.
In a recent article in Science, Cornell professor Hod Lipson and graduate student Michael Schmidt described a new computer system that can discover scientific laws. At first glance, it looks like a fulfillment of the dreams of “computational scientific discovery,” a small field at the intersection of philosophy and artificial intelligence (AI) that seeks to reverse-engineer scientific imagination and create a computer as skilled as we are at constructing theories. But if you look closer, it turns out that the system’s success at analyzing large, complicated data sets, formulating initial theories, and discarding trivial patterns in favor of interesting ones comes not from imitating people, but from allowing a very different kind of intelligence to grow in silico — one that doesn’t compete with humans, but works with us....
lder AI projects in scientific discovery tried to model the way scientists think. This approach doesn’t try to imitate an individual scientist’s cognitive processes — you don’t need intuition when you have processor cycles to burn — but it bears an interesting similarity to the way scientific communities work.
Though I have to give credit where it's due: if it turned out well, it's because it's a great project, and several people were very generous with their time, talking me through its details, and speculating on what the project and this approach to automated scientific discovery could mean for the future of science. I should never be amazed that people are almost always willing to talk about their work and what makes it interesting, but I never fail to be. Remember that when I call you!
Sitting on the veranda. Wifi really changes your life, you know?
Beautiful day here in Sausalito!
Finishing an essay for Vodafone on tinkering while Heather and the kids are in Golden Gate Park and the California Academy of Sciences. Thought a different place might be usefully stimulating.
I have a day with no meetings. Owing to the combination of the Institute being a pretty meeting-driven place, and my own distracting sociability, this is a rare thing. Not one to be wasted.
Everyone loves groups. What's better (in America at least) than being part of a "team"? Collaboration is cool. (Is there a word that's been rehabilitated more completely than "collaboration"? Fifty years ago, someone who "collaborated" wasn't a good person, but a traitor.) Collective intelligence is the solution to the world's problems. Smart mobs are... mobbish, perhaps, but also smart, and that's what matters.
Groups are powerful... but for all their power, they're also fragile. University of Washington academics Will Felps and Terence Mitchell constructed a very interesting experiment to show just how fragile they are, by demonstrating the effect of "bad apples" on the effectiveness of small groups.
Groups of four college students were organized into teams and given a task to complete some basic management decisions in 45 minutes. To motivate the teams, they're told that whichever team performs best will be awarded $100 per person. What they don't know, however, is that in some of the groups, the fourth member of their team isn't a student. He's an actor hired to play a bad apple, one of these personality types:
- The Depressive Pessimist will complain that the task that they're doing isn't enjoyable, and make statements doubting the group's ability to succeed.
- The Jerk will say that other people's ideas are not adequate, but will offer no alternatives himself. He'll say "you guys need to listen to the expert: me."
- The Slacker will say "whatever", and "I really don't care."
The conventional wisdom in the research on this sort of thing is that none of this should have had much effect on the group at all. Groups are powerful. Group dynamics are powerful. And so groups dominate individuals, not the other way around. There's tons of research, going back decades, demonstrating that people conform to group values and norms.
But Will found the opposite.
Invariably, groups that had the bad apple would perform worse. And this despite the fact that were people in some groups that were very talented, very smart, very likeable. Felps found that the bad apple's behavior had a profound effect -- groups with bad apples performed 30 to 40 percent worse than other groups.
A paper describing the experiment, "How, when, and why bad apples spoil the barrel: Negative Members and Dysfunctional Groups," is available as a PDF.
Thanks to Mathias for the link.
I write about people, technology, and the worlds they make.
I'm a senior consultant at Strategic Business Insights, a Menlo Park, CA consulting and research firm. I also have two academic appointments: I'm a visitor at the Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford University, and an Associate Fellow at Oxford University's Saïd Business School. (I also have profiles on Linked In, Google Scholar and Academia.edu.)
I began thinking seriously about contemplative computing in the winter of 2011 while a Visiting Researcher in the Socio-Digital Systems Group at Microsoft Research, Cambridge. I wanted to figure out how to design information technologies and user experiences that promote concentration and deep focused thinking, rather than distract you, fracture your attention, and make you feel dumb. You can read about it on my Contemplative Computing Blog.
My book on contemplative computing, The Distraction Addiction, will be published by Little, Brown and Company in 2013. (It will also appear in Dutch and Russian.)
My latest book, and the first book from the contemplative computing project. The Distraction Addiction will appear in summer 2013, published by Little, Brown and Co.. (You can pre-order it through Amazon or IndieBound now, though!)
My first book, Empire and the Sun: Victorian Solar Eclipse Expeditions, was published with Stanford University Press in 2002 (order via Amazon).
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PUBLISHED IN 2011
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PUBLISHED IN 2009