Monthly Archives: November 2010

Some quick thoughts on the Art of Non-Conformity

Chris Guillebeau‘s new book, The Art of Non-Conformity, is clear, concise, and gets straight to the point. Chris tries to eliminate “busy work” from his life, and he’s done an excellent job of eliminating “busy reading” from this book.

This is a book about living the life that you want to live and not the life that someone else wants you to live. And that is what I found most refreshing about the book: Chris isn’t saying be a rebel and do things just because someone else said you couldn’t (or shouldn’t); he’s saying don’t do something just because someone else says you should.

The message is a positive one – figure out what it is that you want from your life and do that. And allow – encourage – others to do the same. This last point, I think, is especially valuable for parents, who should read this book and keep it in mind as they raise their kids and prepare them for their own adventures in the world. (A theme I’ve touched on before.)

If you are not currently a non-conformist, you will think “no way” and “he’s crazy” more than once as you read through this book; but if you make it all the way through you’ll thank him for it in the end. If you think you are already a non-conformist, you will likely realize that you really aren’t; that you are perhaps more rebel and less non-conformist.

A must read for just about everyone.

Different is the new normal (a mathematical view)

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Back in April I wrote a post titled Different is the new normal. In that article I looked at “normal” and “different” in the cultural sense; this is the primary context in which most people put this discussion. It occurred to me a week or so ago, though, that it would be interesting to see what this would look like from a mathematical perspective.

The first thing I think of when I hear “normal” is the normal distribution curve. So I thought, what if we put normal in the middle, and different on the ends to represent the current (and hopefully fading) view. And then, to represent different as the new normal, switch it up and put different in the middle and normal on the ends. So I started sketching out the diagrams to the right.

I played around with it a bit, mostly trying to figure out how to label the diagram. Using “normal” and “different” just didn’t seem right. I really like Seth Godin’s description of today’s normal as “factory work”, so I adopted that as “normal”. To split it into the ends, it made sense (to me, anyway) to label them as “blue collar” and “white collar”. Factory work is factory work, after all.

Labeling “different” was a bit more of a challenge. Though I like Seth’s idea of linchpins, it just didn’t seem to fit in this context. I did know that I wanted to use “artist”, as Seth describes them, as one end of different. Then I read Hacking Work and “hacker” became the obvious choice for the other end of different. But I was still stuck on how to describe “different”. Until, that is, I read The Art of Non-Conformity today.

Then it was obvious.

The 11th hour of the 11th day

While today is Veterans Day here in the US, a day to honor all of our military veterans, much of the rest of the Western world today is observing Armistice Day,  which marks the cessation of hostilities on the “western” front of World War I . This “Great War” is all but gone from living memory; according to wikipedia (as of 11 Nov 10), there are only 3 living veterans of World War I.

I have to admit that until a couple of years ago, I didn’t really know that much about WWI. Sure, I knew about trench warfare, mustard gas, the first tanks, etc. But I hadn’t really paid too much attention to the global politics that led up to – and followed – the war. It wasn’t until my sons took their Modern World History course in high school that I really started paying attention.

In the summer of 2008, after my youngest had just completed world history, we spent our family vacation in Kansas City. (That was the location of the USA Gymnastics Junior Olympic Trampoline and Tumbling National Championships that year, and we used our down time to explore.) While there we learned that the National World War I museum is in KC, so we took some time to visit.

What an incredible place. The exhibits are an amazing combination of artifacts and facts. Huge posters explaining the crazy politics that led up to the war, the conduct of the war itself, and the aftermath. Huge, life-size dioramas of trenches and other aspects of a soldier’s life. It took everything I – we – had learned as we discussed WWI during the school year and made it visceral, almost real.

If you ever find yourself in Kansas City, please set aside a morning or afternoon and visit the Liberty Memorial and World War I museum. You will be glad you did.

photo by Brent Flanders, licensed under Creative Commons. Check out Brent’s World War I Museum set on Flickr for more great photos from the museum. Thanks, Brent.

On the path of knowledge creation

ThiagiIn his foreword to Marc Prensky‘s book Digital Game-Based Learning, Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan (@thiagi) recounts the following (emphasis is mine):

Early in my life, my mentor explained to me the three paths that lead to the creation of knowledge. The analytical path, where philosophers reflect, meditate, and make sense of objects and events; the empirical path, where scientists manipulate variables and conduct controlled experiments to validate reliable principles; and the pragmatic path where practitioners struggle with real-world challenges and come up with strategies for effective and efficient performance.

Each of these paths can be taken in isolation from the others, we see that every day. It is also common to see these paths taken one after the other: analyze -> experiment -> implement.

More challenging, and much more powerful, is to integrate these three trails into a single path that allows you to go from trail to trail as needed to get you where you want to go.

Of course it’s about money

Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, programming from the Scripps Network – which includes channels such as Food Network and HGTV – disappeared from the AT&T U-verse lineup last Friday. This surprised just about everyone, since media reports earlier in the week seemed to indicate the two were working amicably toward a resolution of ongoing negotiations. Not so unexpectedly, both Scripps and AT&T very quickly released statements defending their actions and soundly blaming the other for the problems.

AT&T came out of the gate swinging, with the title of their press release, AT&T U-verse TV Customers Denied Fair Deal by Scripps Networks, giving a pretty good idea of their view on the issue. Scripps, on the other hand, came out with AT&T U-verse customers: This is not about money!, letting viewers know that Scripps was only interested in the viewers while implying that all AT&T cared about was money. Of course, both of these companies care about money – they are in business to make money, after all. They just look at it from two different perspectives.

AT&T wants to minimize the amount of money they have to pay to Scripps (or any provider) for programming while maximizing the way they can make money from that content. In this case that means paying once for content, and then being able to distribute the content on as many media and in as many ways as possible and charging their customers for the ability to access the content on all those media. When AT&T says, “With such an uneven playing field, they are harming AT&T’s ability to provide customers with a new video choice”, what they mean is, “With such an uneven playing field, they are harming AT&T’s ability to provide customers with a new video choice and make money doing it.”

On the other hand, Scripps (or any provider) wants to be paid as much money as possible for their content. In today’s media environment that means getting paid not for the content itself but for the rights to distribute that content, with each different possible medium (TV, web, mobile, etc) being another possible revenue stream. So when Jeffrey at HGTV says, “Accepting their demands would have restrained our ability to deliver our programs to viewers like you in new and innovative ways”, what he really means is, “Accepting their demands would have restrained our ability to deliver our programs to viewers like you in new and profitable ways.”

These two companies are not fighting over the best ways of providing programming to viewers, they are fighting over which one of them will get the most money out of these new delivery methods. We, the viewers, will pay for the programming one way or another, it doesn’t really matter who the money goes to. Do these companies really think that we believe they are acting out of some altruistic, self-sacrificing urge to make us happy?

Of course it’s about money. What’s wrong with that?

Be excellent to each other (thoughts on Ubuntu!)

I had been reading up on Ubuntu (the operating system) when I came across ubuntu!: An Inspiring Story About an African Tradition of Teamwork and Collaboration (the book) at the library. It was obvious from the subtitle that this was not a book about the OS, but the title pulled me in to at least take a look.

At first I thought it was a true story, perhaps an extended case study, since it was in the new non-fiction section. It turns out, though, that it is actually a work of didactic fiction, a story created by the authors to make a point. That point being that at work we all seem to forget that our co-workers are human, that they aren’t just there as “cogs in the machine”, and that we all need to start respecting our fellow workers as people, even if the work they perform isn’t (yet) worthy of our respect.

Or as those two great philosophers Bill Preston and Ted Logan once said, “Be excellent to each other.”

This point is made through the application of the African tradition known as ubuntu, brought to (stereo)typical big box corporate America by a young South African man working at the company while an MBA student at a local university. The short definition of ubuntu is

a philosophy that considers the success of the group above that of the individual

Here is a more detailed description, as given by Simon (the young South African student) early on to John, his overly stressed and on the verge of failing manager:

Ubuntu…is about teamwork and brotherhood. It is finding that part of you that connects with other people and bringing it to life…. When you struggle, the Ubuntu in me reaches out to give you a hand. If you wander into my village with nothing to eat, our villagers will provide you with food. Why? Because at the deepest level we are all brothers and sisters…. If one of us hurts, we all hurt.

The rest of the story revolves around John’s learning journey, his epiphany, and the sharing of this new knowledge with the rest of the company.

If you are looking for engaging characters, a suspenseful plot, and a twist at the end, this is not the book for you. As William Gibson said recently, didactic fiction rarely results in deep characters or plot. And that’s fine, because the point of this story is to make a point.

For someone open to the idea of an engaging workplace, where each person is respected as a human first, and only then viewed as an employee, the story told in Ubuntu! will provide some insight into the possibilities. Ironically, these are the people who least need to read this book, because they probably already feel this way.

On the other hand, the people who could most benefit from this book – the managers who treat their employees like, well, employees – will most likely read this book and dismiss it as “touchy feely crap”.

The power of Ubuntu is, I’m afraid, one of those things that you have to experience to truly appreciate.

My new Five Fingers KSO

Five Fingers for my five toes

My new Five Fingers KSOAt the Strange Loop conference last month, I met a couple of guys wearing Vibram Five Fingers shoes. They both highly recommended them, so I figured I’d give them a try.  I went for the KSO model in black and orange (shown at right). I’ve been wearing my KSOs pretty much everywhere for the past week and can honestly say I love them.

Here’s how Vibram introduces Five Fingers:

Remember going barefoot as a child? It’s the way you first discovered and conquered your world—without the constraint of shoes. Or the sense of duty you acquired later on.

Now you can experience that same physical and visceral sensation in Vibram FiveFingers—the only footwear to offer the exhilarating joy of going barefoot with the protection and sure-footed grip of a Vibram® sole.

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call going barefoot an “exhilarating joy”, but I do have a tendency to go barefoot whenever I can, and the Five Fingers do give you the feeling of being barefoot. The bonus, of course, is the protection that the shoe provides. When wearing them you still feel all the bumps and rocks (and sticks or whatever), so you should watch where you’re walking, but you’re protected from all the sharp edges. You also don’t have to worry about your feet getting dirty or otherwise covered with gunk.

Some friends who are runners swear by Five Fingers as a great shoe to wear if you prefer to run barefoot. It has been a (way too) long time since I’ve done any running, and I’ve never run barefoot, so I can’t really comment to that. But I can say if you like to run barefoot, I can’t imagine these not being great.

A couple of things to keep in mind with Five Fingers:

  • If you don’t go barefoot much, take your time getting used to it. The instructions that come with the shows recommend starting with just an hour or so a day at first, and building up to longer.
  • Putting on Five Fingers is a bit more involved than slipping on a pair of shoes. You have to make sure that each toe goes in the right pocket, and there is definitely a trick to it. Just read the instructions, they will help.
  • It feels weird at first having your toes in pockets in the shoes.
  • These are very minimal shoes, and though they do provide protection from the physical elements they don’t help at all against the cold. You can get socks to wear with Five Fingers, but even those will only provide a little bit of warmth.

As I mentioned earlier, I really like these shoes. So much so that I’m planning to buy another pair as soon as I can find the style I’m looking for (the KSO Trek) in my size. If you enjoy walking barefoot, or think that the benefits Vibram describes might be something you’re interesting in, I highly recommend these unusual, but great, shoes.


15 Authors (in 15 minutes)

This meme crossed my desk on Facebook last weekend, and I thought my response was worth sharing here as well.
– – — — —–

Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen authors (poets included) who’ve influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.

Where to start…? Let’s start with fiction.

When I was in the Army, Tom Clancy‘s books were a big influence. I enjoyed all of his books up to Executive Orders, which is where I think he should have stopped.

I love Stephen King‘s work, though I haven’t read much recently. (As you’ll see, I read more non-fiction these days.)

I’ve come to appreciate the work of William Gibson (@GreatDismal), and would have to say that my favorite fiction author these days is Neal Stephenson. (I re-read either Cryptonomicon or Anathem every year.)

On the non-fiction side, in no particular order (except the order in which they came to mind):

Douglas Hofstadter
From his first book, the masterpiece Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid to his latest, I Am a Strange Loop, he is the instigator of much of my interest in how our minds work.

Steven Pinker
Speaking of How the Mind Works, Pinker’s books have also influenced how I think about and understand why we do the things we do, and how we learn.

Daniel Pink (@danielpink)
His latest Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and his earlier A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future are outstanding. And every parent should give their high school senior The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need.

Seth Godin
Linchpin

Steven Johnson (@stevenbjohnson)
His latest, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, is the book I wish I had written. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter are required reading if you want to understand how our culture ended up the way it is (and why that isn’t really so bad.)

E.O. Wilson
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, and everything else.

Richard Feynman
Not so much an author as a story teller, but oh what stories he had to tell.

Atul Gawande (#atulgawande)
I’m not a doctor, and after reading his books I don’t understand why anyone would ever want to be. But he has some great insights on what it means to walk the master’s path.

George Leonard
Speaking of the master’s path, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment has a permanent place on the shelf on my desk.

Don Tapscott(@dtapscott)
Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation gave me my first real understanding of the potential of the digital age, everything else is just gravy.

Temple Grandin
She has helped me understand autism better, and what it must be like for autistics to make their way in this society of ours. If you are the parent of an autistic child, run (don’t walk) out and pick up Emergence: Labeled Autistic and/or Thinking in Pictures.

Stuart Kauffman
Investigations just blew me away. I still only understand about 1/2 of it, but I keep going back to it to learn more and more.

OK, OK, that’s 16. So, I got a little carried away….

Safe? No. Awesome? YES! My review of Strange Loop 2010

When I first learned about the Strange Loop developers conference here in St. Louis, I had a strong – you might say strange – urge to attend. Strange because I am not a software developer; it’s been a long time since I’ve done any serious coding. What caught my eye was how conference organizer Alex Miller (@puredanger) tied the ideas of one of my favorite books of recent years, Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop, to The Loop here in St. Louis and the idea of building an identity for St. Louis based developers.

More importantly, at least for me, it was not a conference focused on any one topic or language, but was like a survey course of the latest and greatest in many areas of development theory and practice. Here’s a quick summary of some of the sessions I attended at Strange Loop 2010:

Semantic Web

The first non-keynote talk I attended, Brian Sletten’s (@bsletten) talk Semantic Web: Hot or Not? looked at big-S Semantic Web, providing a bit of history about how it has failed to catch on in the past and why he thinks that its time has come. In case you are wondering, Brian voted for “hot”.

Towards the end of the second day, Scott Davis (@scottdavis99) presented Hidden Web Services: Microformats and the Semantic Web, a look at what I would call small-s semantic web. Using some (not always cooperative) live examples along with his presentation slides, Scott showed RDFa and microformats in action.

Of all the talks, these two provided me the most practical information that I can make use of. As soon as I finish this review (and catch up on a couple of other things I need to blog), I will be diving into RDFa and microformats and seeing how I can put them to use on this blog and a couple of other sites with which I’m involved.

Complexity Theory

Readers of this blog know that complexity is an idea that is never very far back in my thoughts, so I obviously made the time to attend Tim Berglund’s (@tlberglund) talk Complexity Theory and Software Development. He covered a lot of ground that I’m familiar with, but also gave me many new things to think about. And a couple of new ways to look at things.

Not taking anything away from any of the other presenters, Tim was one of the best presenters I had the pleasure of seeing. He was in one of the “small” rooms, but the quality of both the content and the presentation would have made this talk well suited to the main room at the Pageant.

NoSQL

When I saw the NoSQL track on the Strange Loop schedule, I assumed that this was a specific database implementation, along the lines of mySQL. (I told you it’s been a while….). Over the course of the two days, I came to understand the concepts of NoSQL and how these concepts can be, and are, being used.

Eben Hewitt’s (@ebenhewitt) talk Adopting Apache Cassandra provided me with a nice theoretical understanding that would serve me well through later talks, and Kevin Weil’s (@kevinweil) provided some lessons in implementation in his talk NoSQL at Twitter. The engineer in me really enjoyed Kevin’s frank discussion of the challenges and solutions – some successful and some not – as Twitter addressed the challenges presented by huge data sets.

Android

Next to the semantic web discussions, Ted Neward’s (@tedneward) talk Busy Java Developer’s Guide to Android: Basics provided me the most practical value. My Droid gives me a reason – and opportunity – to use Android as a platform to get back into some development (however small scale it may be), and this talk gave me enough to get started. A quick overview of the SDK, some talk about the NDK, and then some runthroughs of ideas were great. Ted also had a wealth of knowledge which he freely shared during the extended Q&A that the session eventually turned into.

It’s tough to say which talk was my favorite, but if you pushed me to choose I would have to go with Android Squared from Bob Lee (@crazybob) and Eric Burke (@burke_eric) from Square.  The talk focused on the engineering and software challenges related to using the Square in the mic port of an Android phone, including some detailed waveform and signal analysis and some tricks to deal with the wide variety of Android implementations out there. (It didn’t hurt that they handed out some hardware at the end of their talk.)

Bob and Eric took turns talking about specific aspects of the challenges and the solutions. Like Kevin Weil, they held no punches in terms of talking about successes and failures along the way. They not only showed the final product, but provided some great insights into the process of figuring things out.

There are a couple of talks I attended but haven’t mentioned, and then their are the keynotes and the panel discussions that were worth the price of admission (a low $190) all on their own. I’ll try to get back to those, and maybe even the above talks, in more detail over the coming weeks.

Summary (of my already too long summary)

At the top of Alex Miller’s favorites list on Twitter is this tweet from Jeff Atwood (@codinghorror):

“it’s better to be safe than sorry” is such crap. You know what’s better than being safe? Being AWESOME.

Alex most definitely didn’t take a “safe” path when he put together Strange Loop. The venue was spread across three venues, including a club typically used for concerts, the hotel next door, and a couple of rooms from the Regional Arts Commission across the street. Some of the rooms got overcrowded, and there was a general dissatisfaction with the wi-fi availability. And then there is the cross-discipline (cross-language?) nature of the conference, which may not have provided the depth that some wanted but made up for it with breadth.

I can’t speak for Alex and whether or not he is sorry about any of it, but I can say that he – and his cadre of assistants and volunteers – definitely hit awesome.

I’m already looking forward to next year.