Monthly Archives: February 2013

“Why” – It’s the 64 quazillion dollar question..

Boy, I left today’s seminar session with my mind abuzz. I love the “why” question, and was reminded of its power… There’s a reason Toyota founded a TQM process with this as its basis. There’s a reason it’s the question I go to repeatedly in coaching, motivation, performance management and assorted other organization effectiveness interventions… It provokes our minds on a quest toward understanding.

There’s a reason. For everything, actually. Sometimes we don’t discover what it is. Sometimes we don’t arrive at an answer. If we do, there’s often little satisfaction in it because the process of getting there raised a dozen other questions we’re already more interested in.

I left today highly energized. Not because I had answers. Rather because I had gained insights, identified other questions, found synergy in shared interests with others… And reminded that this energy is what engages learners. Not answers, facts, data – but process, exploration, questioning. It is an empowering catalyst…

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What is “it” worth?

What information is valuable?  How is this value determined?  What is the longevity of the value and the information itself?  How is

Many searches seem to operate by popularity or on the cleverness of the owner of the information.  In other words, what is important is determined by the popular vote of the masses or by the entity that wants us to consume their information.  This method for generating the top hits on queries may allow some of the most interesting and, perhaps, the most relevant and accurate information out of reach for most of us.

Much of innovation and leaps forward in discovery come at the margins, things that seems insignificant at the time or that, in the original context, boring.  What would happen if key fringe information was ignored because of a low popularity score and faded away as time passed?

J.J. Thomson, who is credited with the discovery the electron in 1897 and won the Nobel Prize in 1906 for this contribution to science, was said to have the following quote on the wall of his lab:  “To the electron: may it never be of any use!”  He could not have imagined what would come of his discovery and the places others would take us using the electron as the foundation.

Is there a way we can program a search for sagacity or to promote serendipity?  Some have suggested creating customizable searches, e.g. we set the parameters of importance to determine the distribution of the information and associations returned.  Others have suggested that we increase our capacity for human connections, which could both narrow and broaden the scope of information or associations returned. Can artificial intelligence help us create the optimum digital search and association platform?

I am still uncomfortable with the 100% digital repository and our reliance on the digital search.  I find it difficult to imagine the value of digital only in the absence of real-time, interaction with the creativity of another person or group of people.  We gain so much from cues that are not easily replicated in a digital environment.   I can also imagine natural disasters or something like a “zombie apocolypse” when electricity and related resources are absent.  In these cases, where and how would we get our information, a local scale?  What information would be lost and require a complete rediscovery?  Am I alarmist?


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Beyond Imagination 2013-02-27 13:39:35

What is the difference between information, knowledge and wisdom? And how does the human-computer interaction, present and future, deal with the distinctions? It seems to me that these terms are interrelated and can overlap, but that there are unique aspects of each. Perhaps they could be viewed on a continuum. Information is data; it can be quantifiable and stored, and is of great quantity. But It may also be qualitative, and subject to interpretation even as to whether it may be quantified. Opinions can be part of data sets, and while they are information they may be incorrect by other standards. Bush saw the storage and retrieval of information as a major use for computers.

Information may be useful to create knowledge; as Wiener mentioned a computer can perform calculation and informational tasks much faster than a human. The 85% of  time Licklider  spent to compile previous studies and show them graphically could be freed to spend further on the analysis. Licklier sought to bring human and computer into a closer symbiosis, and involve the computer in not only solving but also asking the questions, which would bring the aspect of knowledge perhaps into the realm of the computer. But knowledge is not always about learning from information; it is broader than that and takes into account the entire world around us and our relationship with others. How do we  “know” the beauty of a painting or a poem? How does one “know” the pain of tragedy? Probably not by doing an analysis based solely on the input of information.

Taking a deep breath, how might one define wisdom? Wisdom might be viewed as the “proper” use of our knowledge; understanding implications of our actions and reflecting upon right and wrong. It is morality and ethical thinking and a conceptual understanding of justice. It is sometimes related to experience, but not always. Can the symbiosis of human and computer aid humankind in recognizing wise decisions and wise actions? Wiener would be skeptical about this, I think, based on his observation that “there is a great chance of turning the machine to human advantage, but the machine itself has no particular favor for humanity.” As we design computer applications, networks, and hardware, the important issue for our society will be whether we have the wisdom to design in our values and whether we can anticipate the unintended. It will take not only computer scientists, but it will need our collective wisdom for a future where the music of the computer is music to our ears, indeed.


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Computers, Men, and Machines


I confess I found it distracting that the only computer users alluded to in articles, “Men, Machines, and the World About,” and “Man-Computer Symbiosis” were men. I know the articles were written before political correctness, but by only considering “men’s work” in the symbiosis of humans and computers, the writers missed out on some trends that now seem obvious, like teleworking, music sharing, and social media. I enjoyed the remark on automatic speech recognition that “one could hardly take a military commander or a corporation president away from his work to teach him to type.”

I’ve spent the last 26 years working in information technology, and I haven’t given much thought to control theory, shift registers, or interpreted program languages like FORTRAN in all that time. The need for two or more people to exchange drawings or to draw collaboratively in real time has still not been solved to my satisfaction. I suppose there are apps for that on tablets, and I’m too much of a Luddite to realize it.

As to freeing us up from the tedious work of looking up references so that we can use our brains more creatively, this was a goal of the Blacksburg Electronic Village project when I worked on it in 1992. There were no web browsers then, so we had to organize links we thought users would want on our Gopher server, and WAIS index it so people would find us on the internet if they were already there. At the start of the project, I requested 200 IP addresses for town council, school teachers, and local business people, and the director of the computing center told me, “You’ll never get 200 people on the internet.” Indeed, persuading people that getting on the internet was worth the hassle of setting up one’s computer, modem, and software was a daunting task. I visited a professor named John in Urban Affairs who had a kind of Idea Salon to help me think of ways to persuade people. I don’t remember what we came up with, but he played an olfactory disk that smelled like lavender, some classical music by Mozart, and showed me some pictures of binary stars. The Mosaic browser came out in 1993, and we had no trouble persuading people after that, but I still wish we had an Idea Salon. Maybe that’s what Pinterest is for.

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Finding the Signal Amidst the Noise

I was really struck by a few things in the Vannevar Bush’s article, “As We May Think” and I was bummed that I had to leave last week’s discussion early. What really resonated with me was this idea of freeing one’s mind and imagination from the necessity to memorize and remember. When you have the comfort of knowing that you can retrieve relevant information when needed, your limited cognitive processes are less burdened from the mundane and are freed to wonder down more interesting paths.

Of course with the advent of Google, I feel like we have that now to some extent, but it certainly isn’t foolproof. I’ve often found a great article, simulation, or recipe online, thinking I could easily reproduce it with a Google search, but end up falling short when that potluck approaches. To attempt to remedy this problem, I’ve tried keeping bookmarks (both in the cloud and on a computer), but that creates its own problems of organization and retrieval. My less elegant fix is to email myself a link with keywords that I think I might use in a future search when I’m ready to retrieve it. While this fix works well for articles I remember, if I’m not cued to look for that information, it’s forever lost.

As Bush points out, as we collectively store more information, our organization is going to be key in being able to discern the signal from the noise. While I appreciate his fondness for our human ability to make useful associations, I wonder how this could potentially play out. While I see Wikis as being some sort of realization of this idea, I worry that our collection will be useful only to those who think like us. If we organize topics as an expert would, for instance, how useful would that be for someone who is just entering a field? If we organize things in predictable ways for the masses, would that deter revolutions in thinking?

One of my goals of this blog is to bring ideas back to teaching. In our classrooms, how can we utilize the collective knowledge, skills, and imaginations of our students so that they can scaffold on each other while providing a space for all students? What do we expect our students to “know” and what is acceptable for them to recall through a Google search, an equation sheet, notes, text, etc? If a student is freed from having to remember the mass of an electron, for example, she can focus her attention on understanding how an electron interacts with an electric field. But if she can google search “how does an electron move in an electric field” does that free her even more, or, does that deter from her motivation to create new knowledge?

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What strikes me repeatedly in these readings is a certain stumbling at the threshold of analog and digital, two very different Ways. It’s about more than how the numbers display on your clock. How to say the difference succinctly? I’m tempted to be quasi-poetic: the analog is what you’re used to, the digital is what amazes. We are, still, a culture of analog thinkers and we work in analog ways that are simple extensions of how our bodies do things.

Digital is something else altogether and, not coincidentally, it’s like Capitalism: everything and anything is everywhere and anywhere instantaneously and continuously, the same way capital moves from short-term investment to short-term investment, relentlessly probing the system for quick profits that make up an astonishingly increasing percentage of “income.” Traders who are still working analog soon drive cabs. Goldman Sachs rules the world because its computers autoshift capital from investment to investment with nano-second triggers that maximize their profit at the expense of both their rivals, who miss out, and the entire analog industry—that world where actual people go to work and make stuff. If you think in analog, you think of time as duration, hands of a clock sweeping around the world measured out in hashmarks. If you think in digital, there is no time, only the Now of systems cranking away within systems instantaneously reconstituting your world continuously: Heraclitus gorged on amphetamine.

Licklider keeps thinking in analog ways about his anticipated digital environment. He titillates himself thinking about speech control as cutting edge (“Siri, define ‘analog’”). What would be digital? Not interface, certainly: mouse, touchscreen, it’s all analog. See your digits’ smears on your ipad screen? that’s the grease of analog bumbling around on analog. Do you think Goldman Sachs is happy with the analog interfaces in its trading system, or that it’s zeroing them out as much as possible? Instead of interface (the “enter” between two faces), think flows between neurons and wireless. Not an analog body-self and an analog computer, but a high signal-to-noise environment of think/do flows. All the talk about screens and updating workstations is analog box-think. Move along folks, nothing happening here.

Another way of saying this is not to overly worry about Comcast imperiling the open internet: they’re an analog distribution system about to be leapfrogged by 5G and 6G wireless the way Ma Bell style telephone systems never happened in the hinterlands beyond Globalization’s most venerable nodes. Another way of saying this is that you won’t catch up to that eleven year old with a controller in his hand by learning which button does what in each game. S/he’s half-digital: he has no idea about it… it just flows.

The digital isn’t just a new technology added to our world to which we’ll adjust, like trading in the buggy for a Model T. The Graduate had the right word but the wrong definition of it: the future is plastic, but not the analog stuff we’re recycling. Think instead of the word’s art world sense, kinda like play-doh: as in, the digital malleability of the now and the here, the everything at once every way at once, the network that continuously reconstitutes its nodes as the system cranks away faster than light, ours anyway. Hello, node: what are you now? And now what? And…

You see the analog also in the editor’s impoverished view of the anthology’s opening Borges story: it’s read as a precursor of hypertext. Um, no. More like the holographic universe of realities that form as we perform them. The way light is particles if we look for it that way, but wave or field if we look at it those ways, or the way particles separated by distance, it would appear to the analog mind, “know” what each other is up to.

Ultimately, that is, the digital is requires field-theory thinking rather than analog’s particle-thinking. But that’s another tome. Wiener and Licklider didn’t quite make it to the promised land.

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Symbiosis – Revisited…

Interesting reading and reflecting upon Man-Computer Symbiosis…  I named this blog “symbiosis” because of how deeply entwined I experience my own life with technology.  In many ways, day in and day out, moment to moment, I am in and out of technology – communicating, referencing, looking up, sharing, interacting – I feel one with it. Clearly my life is enhanced by it.  The question is: “Is technology enhanced by my use of it?”

In some ways, the answer is clearly “yes.”  Whatever algorithms and tracking mechanisms Google and Amazon are employing, their interfaces learn from my patterns, and in turn create clear paths of ease for me in future interactions.  In turn, they benefit more greatly from my usage.

In other ways, the answer is as murky as a swamp.  Licklider’s article made me contemplate the design of computers – in a way that parallels human interactive behavior.  Clearly, we have evolved technology beyond his imagination, and addressed the major areas of capacity concern.  We’re beyond significant storage and organization challenges, even indexing and retrieval concerns.  What we haven’t evolved past is the design – programming machines to be ultimately helpful to us.  What’s crystal clear to me is that this area suffers from our inability to be clear about things in our own thinking – and thus our relationships and communication aren’t as effective as they could be, even without technology.  Clearly we’re still not ready or able to empower technology with these capabilities.

True man-computer symbiosis requires providing the machines with a framework and guidance for critical thought – as the article states, referencing appropriately relevant past data/case information, weighing assumptions, and making decisions appropriately based on that.  We can’t just program to every imaginable scenario – life provides unimaginable scenarios, to which the human mind reacts in the moment and responds.  Often we can’t adequately articulate the information considered, how it is weighted, all of our decision criteria and specific desired outcomes.  These are problems that run rampant in supervision and leadership, and organizational effectiveness scenarios.  We can’t do it for each other, let alone teach a machine how to do it.

I found it interesting also that Licklider referenced the difference in human vs. technological instruction-making.  That as humans we think about and give instruction in terms of goals and outcomes, but technology requires a specified process or course of action.  In my experience (again, primarily in organizational settings and with reference to leadership responsibilities), so often we fail to clearly articulate the desired outcomes or goals in a way that makes for meaningful translation and understanding on the part of those who will determine a course of action.  So on one hand, we may articulate goals (but not well), and on the other we may specify a course of action (with no clear sense of where it will get us and whether that is the desired end point).

My head is spinning.  At least we haven’t yet progressed at a rate sufficient to throw Sarah Connor into fits and nightmares.  We still have a lot to learn about how our own thinking works.  In order to be able to design and enable technology to best serve us – and then to benefit through further learning and evolution – we need to design it in a way that suits natural human behavior; not in a way that humans need to adjust to fit.

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Your Brain Lies to You

In this second post relating to a VT seminar I’m participating in on New Media, I wanted to return to Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article, “As We May Think,” to take a closer look at why we might need a memex – i.e., a memory augmentation – device.

In 2008, I read a New York Times Op-Ed by Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt entitled “Your Brain Lies to You,” which broaden my understanding of the challenges I might face when trying to present new ideas to students; ideas which might at first run against long held beliefs. The problem with our brain rests in how it manages information. Unlike the memex device envisioned by Vannevar Bush (or a modern day computer), your brain does not record information in a way that it can be retrieved in its original form. In the words of Wang and Aamodt, “Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain … . But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.”

This phenomenon is known as source amnesia and can result in a person forgetting whether a statement is true. Thus, while you might initially discredit an idea form a non-credible source, the problem of source amnesia means that the original idea might gain credibility as you misremember where it came from. Another challenge is that we tend to fit new information into established mental frameworks. This means that we are likely to selectively accept and remember ideas that reinforce existing beliefs and reject and forget those that don’t. The question then, is what can be done to address these inherent problems in the way in which our mind works?

One possible solution is to associate a new, contradictory, perhaps, controversial idea to an emotion. In their Op-Ed, Wang and Aamodt discuss how ideas can spread by their emotional selection, rather than by their factual merits. In the classroom, when covering an idea that may be at odds with a student’s mental framework, one approach I have tried is to ask the student to imagine how their world would be different if the information were true. The trick is to try and create an emotional jolt that the student will remember in the future when confronted by the same contradictory information.

Another potential way to resolve this dilemma might be to adopt a technology platform that can help counteract source amnesia and one’s own mental frameworks. The new Google Glasses, demonstrated in the short video below, present a modern day example of a possible memex device.

While these glasses could be used as a memory augmentation device, the question is whether or how the recording/structured information would change, hopefully improve, your mental frameworks. A deeper question is whether such a technology could be used to enhance your intelligence/wisdom, or would it simply enable you to cheat the system in some way.

Finally, while watching the video above, I started to wonder what would happen if my students and I were to use this technology during a group discussion. The possibilities seem immense, even if a little scary. Perhaps, I’ll be inspired in the next two days and submit a proposal to be a Google Glass explorer.

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The limits of what we know – and how we can imagine

Well, I’m so sorry I missed the first content discussion in last week’s meeting…  I look forward to regrouping this week.

As we may think… I started reading this article thinking that while the author undoubtedly intended it to be timely, it came over as timeless.  At least until he got into talking about dry photography, microfilm, and other aged technologies which were undoubtedly just coming into their adolescence as he wrote.

In the end, the article left me pondering how what we know has tremendous capacity to limit our imagination, as we end up constrained in our thinking about how we might visualize existing technology continuing to evolve.  When indeed the greatest innovations come out of accidental discoveries, the birth of new technologies all together, or transitioning a technology from use in one field to another one (or vastly broadening the application).  It brings “thinking outside of the box” into an entirely new meaning… the box is always so limiting.  And even when we try to “think outside” of it, we still reference it – so the constraint is still there somewhere.

limitless bounds of exploration…

So how can we be thoughtful about innovating?  I think this gets back to the foundation of curiosity.  Always questioning – not based on what is there, what is known…  but in a truly unconstrained, wholly imaginative, fantastical fantasy-based hallucinogenic dreaming way.  And how many things in our day to day lives keep us from going “there”????

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How to Inspire Someone

I recently had coffee with a new friend that changed may have changed my life.

I say "new friend" meaning that we barely knew each other when we first sat down. We had met a few times in seminars around campus, and decided to grab a cup of joe when we arrived at a seminar and found that we were the only two people who showed up. Looking back I'm amazed that it happened at all. On this day it was a balmy 45 degrees in town, and raining harder than I've ever seen (strange fact: every time that I've seen this person since, its been raining...). I suppose most people had nice excuses for not coming, being busy with other work and not wanting to brave the trek through what could have been Noah's Flood. 

I almost didn't come myself. It was the end of a week in which I had worked a minimum of 12 hours a day (Winter Break, what's that?). When I saw the rain, I just wanted to stay inside (sure didn't help that I was wearing my favorite new sport coat and tie). I had LOTS of work to do, and this was just a seminar I wanted to attend, not a mandatory event.

"Maybe if I skip this, I can go home earlier." 

Once we arrived, we waited a few minutes to see if anyone else was coming. When it became apparent that we were the only people crazy enough to walk across campus in the deluge, we considered heading our separate ways to get back to the grind. I admit that I was relieved at the idea, I just got 2 hours of my work day back. Instead, I found myself swimming across a parking lot to a trendy coffee shop (you know, the kind with a broken glass door taped back together for the past 2 years because the hipsters that run the place think its a symbol for something? they're probably right). So there we sat, and he asked me a fairly standard question: 

"What makes Tony tick? Tell me your story."

What happened next doesn't happen very often. Most of the time when people ask that question, they really just want to talk about themselves. Usually, its lasts a few minutes and then splits off into a discussion of something else. We sat there for 2 hours, listening intently to each other's stories. Asking questions, laughing at the funny parts, empathizing and making light of the challenges we had faced.

I left that coffee shop and had one of the most inspired, creative days I've ever had.

When you're faced with a To-Do list that is weeks long, and you have something scheduled for more than 80% of every day, it can be down right impossible to stop and reflect. The time we spent over coffee was the first I had stopped to think about how I ended up where I am in so long that I can't remember.

Stopping to think about my journey had a couple strong effects on me. First, I realized how fortunate I am to be here. My home life is awesome. My wife and I are best friends, and we've come a long way together.  I could never have made it to this point without the love and support that we share. The truth is that I love my job, and I would probably do it for free (Boss, if you're reading this don't get any ideas...). Second, I got a chance to look over the challenges I've faced, and realized that I am much stronger than I think I am. Nothing about my experience has "fit the mold," nothing has gone according to plan. The whole trip has been very messy. I realized that I like it this way. I've worked hard, never knowing exactly where I was going, but feeling hopeful. And I ended up in a place that I feel ALIVE.

How to Inspire Someone

Do you want to find inspiration? Do you want to inspire those around you to do great things? Then do for others what my new friend did for me: Ask them to tell you their story. Listen, and mean it.

A funny thing happened while we were talking. We discovered some deep-seated common ground. We both have a strong passion for education and learning. Now we meet to talk about these things once a week, and we are working together on a project that I hope will awaken a whole new way of building creativity in education. For me, it very well may change the direction of my career, who knows? But that's a story for another day. One thing is certain: I won't let myself get too busy to have a cup of coffee with good company.

Thanks GC.

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