Archive for category culture

Attending to appearances

I picked up a copy of Bernard Knox’s 1994 Backing into the Future because somewhere I saw it referenced about the weird fact that the ancient Greeks thought that the future was behind them. Knox presents evidence from The Odyssey and Oedipus the King to back this up, so to speak. But that’s literally on the first page of the book. The rest of it consists of brilliant and brilliantly written essays about ancient life and scholarship. Totally enjoyable.

True, he undoes one of my favorite factoids: that Greeks in Homer’s time did not have a concept of the body as an overall unity, but rather only had words for particular parts of the body. This notion comes most forcefully from Bruno Snell in The Discovery of Mind, although I first read about it — and was convinced — by a Paul Feyerabend essay. In his essay “What Did Achilles Look Like?,” Knox convincingly argues that the Greeks had both and a word and concept for the body as a unity. In fact, they may have had three. Knox then points to Homeric uses that seem to indicate, yeah, Homer was talking about a unitary body. E.g., “from the bath he [Oydsseus] stepped, in body [demas] like the immortals,” and Poseidon “takes on the likeness of Calchas, in bodily form,” etc. [p. 52] I don’t read Greek, so I’ll believe whatever the last expert tells me, and Knox is the last expert I’ve read on this topic.

In a later chapter, Knox comes back to Bernard William’s criticism, in Shame and Necessity, of the “Homeric Greeks had no concept of a unitary body” idea, and also discusses another wrong thing that I had been taught. It turns out that the Greeks did have a concept of intention, decision-making, and will. Williams argues that they may not have had distinct words for these things, but Homer “and his characters make distinctions that can only be understood in terms of” those concepts. Further, Williams writes that Homer has

no word that means, simply, “decide.” But he has the notion…All that Homer seems to have left out is the idea of another mental action that is supposed necessarily to lie between coming to a conclusion and acting on it: and he did well in leaving it out, since there is no such action, and the idea of it is the invention of bad philosophy.” [p. 228]

Wow. Seems pretty right to me. What does the act of “making a decision” add to the description of how we move from conclusion to action?

Knox also has a long appreciation of Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness (1986) which makes me want to go out and get that book immediately, although I suspect that Knox is making it considerably more accessible than the original. But it sounds breath-takingly brilliant.

Knox’s essay on Nussbaum, “How Should We Live,” is itself rich with ideas, but one piece particularly struck me. In Book 6 of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle dismisses one of Socrates’ claims (that no one knowingly does evil) by saying that such a belief is “manifestly in contradiction with the phainomena.” I’ve always heard the word “phainomena” translated in (as Knox says) Baconian terms, as if Aristotle were anticipating modern science’s focus on the facts and careful observation. We generally translate phainomena as “appearances” and contrast it with reality. The task of the scientist and the philosopher is to let us see past our assumptions to reveal the thing as it shows itself (appears) free of our anticipations and interpretations, so we can then use those unprejudiced appearances as a guide to truths about reality.

But Nussbaum takes the word differently, and Knox is convinced. Phainomena, are “the ordinary beliefs and sayings” and the sayings of the wise about things. Aristotle’s method consisted of straightening out whatever confusions and contradictions are in this body of beliefs and sayings, but then to show that at least the majority of those beliefs are true. This is a complete inversion of what I’d always thought. Rather than “attending to appearances” meaning dropping one’s assumptions to reveal the thing in its untouched state, it actually means taking those assumptions — of the many and of the wise — as containing truth. It is a confirming activity, not a penetrating and an overturning. Nussbaum says for Aristotle (and in contrast to Plato), “Theory must remain committed to the ways human beings live, act, see.” (Note that it’s entirely possible I’m getting Aristotle, Nussbaum, and Knox wrong. A trifecta of misunderstanding!)

Nussbaum’s book sounds amazing, and I know I should have read it, oh, 20 years ago, but it came out the year I left the philosophy biz. And Knox’s book is just wonderful. If you ever doubted why we need scholars and experts — why would you think such a thing? — this book is a completely enjoyable reminder.


[2b2k] Skepticism about stories

The phrase “story-telling” raises my skeptical scalp wisps. I am a sucker for stories, whether of the Moth/ This American Life sort, or the literary art of, say, a Philip Roth or my sister-in-law, Meredith Sue Willis. But “story-telling” also sometimes refers to a belief that even I consider naive about the power of stories to overcome differences, or to the commercial use of stories to manipulate us.

So, I went to the new “Future of Story Telling” conference with my skeptical hazmat suit on. But, it turned out to be an outstanding event. At the very least it helped me understand my skepticism better.

The event, put on by Charlie Melcher, attracted a great set of about 300 folks, including artists, lots of marketers and advertisers, software designers, scientists, and performers. And it used an interesting format that worked out well: Before the event, the conference made a 5-10 minute video for each of the presenters. (Mine is here.) Attendees were asked to choose three one-hour sessions based on those videos. The sessions began with a viewing of the vids, and then a 10-15 minute informal talk by the speaker. The rest was open discussion. Each speaker held her or his session three times.

I tuned mine after each go-through, of course. By the second time, I was setting up the discussion as follows:

Bill Casebeer was at the conference talking about research that shows that the brain releases empathy-producing chemicals when we hear a story that follows the classic arc. This reaction is universal, and when I had a chance to talk with Bill the night before (he’s a brilliant, enjoyable, and — most of all — patient person) I learned that chimpanzee brains also seem to work this way. So, I began my session by pointing to those findings.

But, there are plenty of natural brain reactions that we work against. For example, if the impulse for revenge were a natural impulse, we would try to thwart it in the name of civilization. Likewise if rape were a natural impulse. (This is the old sociobiology debate from the ‘Seventies.) So, I told my session I wanted to raise two questions, not as a devil’s advocate but because I’m genuinely uncertain. First, should we be resisting our brain’s impulse to see and react to story arcs on the grounds that the story arc often is a simplification to the point of falsification? Second, whether or not we reject the arc, does the Internet offer possibilities for telling radically more complex (and therefore more truthful) stories?

Then, I talked briefly about networked knowledge, because that’s what the organizers wanted me to talk about. Also, it’s a topic I like. So, I looked at Reddit (yes, again) as a place at which we see knowledge exhibited in its complexity, including the inevitable disagreements. My overall point was that our new medium is enabling knowledge to become more appropriately complex. If the Net is doing this to knowledge, perhaps it can and even should do this to story telling.

The groups at all three sessions focused on the question of whether story arcs falsify. I gave them the example of how your life is lived versus how it is retold in a biography. The bio finds an arc. But your life — or at least mine — is far more random and chaotic than that. One group usefully applied this to the concept of a “career,” a term that now we pretty much have to put in quotes. We don’t have careers so much as a series of hops, skips, and jumps. (“Career” has always carried class-implications, as did this discussion.) In fact, since (I’d hypothesized) everything is being reinterpreted as a network of the Internet sort, our path through jobs and among friends is itself beginning to look like a network. Small jobs loosely joined?

Some replied that even if your life does not consist of an heroic arc, every step of the way is a little arc. I’d agree that our experience is to a large degree characterized by intentionality (or, as Heidegger would say, by the fact that we care about what happens). But my understanding of the story arc is that it needs the intervention of an obstacle, but most of our plans go forward without a hitch, if only because we learn to be pretty good plan-makers. Further, I think the arc needs to contain a sense that it has more to say than what it literally says. “I went to a store for apples, but they were out, so I went to a different store” is not yet a story. It has to reveal something about the world or about myself: “I went to the store for apples, and the clerk was incredibly rude. Why can’t people be nice to each other? So, then…” Most of what we do has an intention, but not every intentional act is a story. That’s why I don’t see our lives as composed of little stories. And even if they were, putting those little stories together wouldn’t necessarily make the Big Stories we tell about ourselves true.

Some said that stories are not a matter of truth but of emotion. A woman from Odyssey Networks, a group that promotes interfaith understanding, told a story about hardened criminals tenderly caring for other prisoners. Quite moving. And I wouldn’t diminish the importance of stories for connecting us as creatures that feel, care, suffer, and rejoice. But I did want to raise the ethics of using a form of communication that appeals directly to our lizard brains. (Well, I’m pretty sure that’s the wrong portion of the brain. Lizards probably tell really cold-hearted stories.) I didn’t do a very effective job of raising this issue, but we could balance the prisoners’ story with a million propagandistic anecdotes from politicians (“I was in Phoenix when I met Josie Jones, a workin’ mom strugglin’ to make ends meet…”) and marketers. Maybe we should be really careful about using stories, since they can make us vulnerable to some very flawed thinking. And to be technical, I do worry also that the common ground that story-tellers find often may not be all that common after all. I have little confidence that we experience The Iliad the way the Greeks did.

It turned out that none of the three groups much wanted to talk much about the second question: the possibility of using the Net to tell more complex stories. That’s my fault. I couldn’t make the idea concrete enough because I don’t have a concrete-enough idea. In two of the sessions I did raise the possibility that some online multiplayer games are one place we might begin to look. I think there’s some value in that idea, for stories there are collaborative and emergent. But they also lack the coherence that a narrator brings to a story, and coherence may well be a requirement for a story. There are worthy experiments in having large groups collaborate on a single narrative, but that doesn’t scale stories so that they more accurately represent the chaotic and complex nature of life.

It may well be that stories need to be relatively simple and arced in the middle simply to be stories. And I would hate to lose the stories that come from artists, for great stories — or perhaps I should say truthful stories — transcend the simplicity the form imposes. But I continue to worry that story-telling outside of the aesthetic realm is a simplification that all too often falsifies. So, I wouldn’t want to give up stories. But I would be happier if we approached the form itself with a fundamental wariness.


[2b2k] Our birds nest future

The always-readworthy Jeremy Wagstaff has a delightful, brief essay that uses our profound ignorance of the quotidian life of the past as a reminder of just how awful we are at predicting — or envisioning — our future.

I also like Jeremy’s essay because I find that I am much more interested in histories of daily life than in broad, sweeping explanations. I consider my lack of broad sweepiness to be a weakness, so I’m not recommending it. But I’m fascinated by how different our lived lives are and have been. And will be.


[aspen][2b2k] Ideo’s Tim Brown

Tim Brown of Ideo is opening his Aspen Ideas Festival talk with a slide presentation called “From Newton to Design”. He says he’s early in thinking it through.

He points to a problem in how we’ve thought about design, trained designers, and have practiced design. The great thing about designing simple products is that you can know almost everything about them: who made them, who they’re for, how they were produced, etc. But as products get more complicated, it gets harder even for a team of designers to really understand what’s going on. They get so complicated that there are lots of places design can fail.

When we go out to urban planning , that becomes even more obvious, he says. He shows Union Sq. when it was designed and how wildly NYC has grown around it. Or, at the Courtyard Marriott chain, every element of the user’s experience has been thought through. He shows a script that specifies every interaction. But you can’t anticipate everything. E.g., JetBlue is one of the best designed customer experiences and even they got it wrong a couple of winters ago.

What’s going on? It’s all about complexity. Henri Poincaré in the 19th century tried to solve the three body problem that had been set by the French govt as an open source competition. HP couldn’t solve it. It sounds like a simple problem, but it’s very hard. [BTW, there's a fascinating history of three French aristocrats hand-computing the movement of Halley's Comet, which depended on calculating the gravitational influences of multiple bodies. Can't find the ref at the moment]

Our basic ideas about design have been based on Newton, says Tim. Design assumes the ability to predict the future based on the present. We need to think more like Darwin: design as an evolutionary process. Design is more about emergence, never finished.

He presents a few principles of Darwinian design that he’s been exploring.

1. Design behaviors, not objects — the behaviors that come from our interactions with objects. If you’ve traveled on the high speed trains in Europe, there are signs urging men to be more accurate when peeing. But at Schiphol Airport, they print a fly at the right spot in the urinal; men became 80% more accurate. That’s designing behavior; the actual object doesn’t matter.

2. Design for information flow. Nicholas Christakis has looked at how networks affect behavior. Tesco uses its loyalty card — which cost them 20% of their margins — to increase sales.

3. Faster iteration = faster evolution. Viruses evolve faster than we do because they iterate faster than we do. E.g., State Farm tried out a new idea how to build relationships with the new generation. They built one storefront for this, and learned from it. “Launch to learn.”

4. Use selective emergence. This intrigues him, alathough he doesn’t know how useful it will be in design. Rather than random mutations, you choose what might be interesting and design things that get us there through many iterations. I.e., genetic algorithms. E.g., the Strandbeest walks along beaches with a hip joint unlike any in nature because the artist used genetic algorithms.

5. Take an experimental approach. I.e., testing hypotheses. Cf. Eric Ries, the Lean Startup (build, measure, learn). E.g., has been working on sanitation in Ghana. Where you can’t dig septic pits, Ideo has been experimenting with low cost receptacle toilets (with bio-digesters). But people didn’t want to pay for the service. So, they gave some to families and went away for three days. All the families changed their minds and said they are willing to pay for the service (which is provided by a local franchise).

6. Focus on simple rules. This comes from emergence theory. E.g., complex bird flocking patterns are based on simple rules. [Canonical example: Termite mounds.] E.g., Bi-Rite stores in SF uses simple rules: If an employee is within 10′ of a customer, you look the customer in the eye. If within 4′, you talk with them. This creates a wonderful service experience.

7. Design is never done. E.g., World of Warcraft is constantly being designed by its players.

8. The power of purpose. This creates the self-governance these complex environments succeed. Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street are examples. Companies are experimenting with new ways of thinking about their business and products. E.g., Patagonia tells you not to buy its products because it also wants to preserve the environment.

The prototypical design artefact is a blue print. Once you created the blue print, the design was done. It was the instruction set for someone to make it. That’s how we think about design: finish and done. What replaces it: Code. It might be DNA (and Tim has people researching this), but more often it’s programming code. It’s an instruction set that can continue to evolve.

Now James Fallows [swoon] interviews him.

JF: You embody your principles. The rules are differen from a prior version. [ACK! Crash. Missed about 2 minutes]

TB: We’ve just finished designing the prototype experience for the new health care exchanges. It will affect how people choose which health care insurance to choose. Today it’s done with paper. Under the new health care laws, lots of people will get to make these choices. We worked with the CA Healthcare Foundation to prototype the user experience. What are the key pieces are parts? How can we keep the choices reasonably simple? Then each state will use this a platform to develop their own.

JF: And the govt had the wit to come to you to do this?

TB: The CA Health Care Foundation…

JF: What are the barriers? Does it cost more to do it your way?

TB: It’s often less costly. Most often they don’t have a good understanding of what their customers go through. When a health care org comes to us, relatively frequently we find out that a senior exec had to go through the health care experience. It’s true of all organizations. We don’t ask the right questions. The urgency to change is not there, and the resistance to change is always huge.

JF: Has the TSA come to you?

TB: Yes, but … well, we learned a lot. In the previous admin, we worked with them to find areas of change. Although going through the scanners has to improve, a lot of it has to do with the behavior of the people. They looked at a training program that was intended to take away some of the rule-based system they used. The more rules you apply, the less sensitive the system is. You need to give the people in that system much more independence to make judgments.

JF: Who do you hire?

TB: We look for a wide range of people. Many disciplines. We look for deep skills, and for empathy. It’s hard to solve problems for others without that. Also, most of what we do is too complex for individuals, so we work in teams, and thus people need an enthusiasm for empathy.

JF: Any unusual interview techniques?

TB: We put people into a situation in which they’re practicing design. E.g., intern program. Also, competitions. And we use Open Ideo as a way of seeing how people work.

JF: Beyond the toilet, what else are you doing for “design for poverty.”

TB: I got excited when I saw the opportunities for design in some social design work. At Open Ideo we’re working on clean water, early ed programs, etc. is a non-profit org. We want it to be sustainable and scalable so we look for external funding for it.

JF: How do you approach environmental sustainability?

TB: We try to build that into every project. Every project affects the environment. We try to bring sustainable thinking around systems, materials, energy flows, etc.

JF: What projects are you proudest of?

TB: The work we do in health care, including with Kaiser Permanente. Also, consumer-facing, post-crash financial services. PNC digital wallet. “Keep the change.” Etc. This is not an area where design has had much to do.


TB: For physical objects, it peaked maybe 20-30 years ago (with Apple as an exception). But we’re in ascendance for behavior-based designed. We get 25,000 apps a year for 100 openings. We’re a 600-person company. Etsy, Kickstarter, sw designed better than ever before…great things are happening. Soon if not already the number of digital designers will be greater than all other designers combined.

Q & A

Q: Your principles are so close to Buckminister Fuller’s [says the guy from the Fuller institute]. But the boundary between social and evolutionary systems is illusory.

TB: Yes, Fuller figured this out a long time ago. We’re perhaps resurrecting ideas, as every generation does. Design has operated as a priesthood for too long. When I started, I was only interested in how beautiful something is. That’s so much simpler. Opening design up to many more will convince us all that we’re all part of this big design ecosystem and have a responsibility to be thoughtful about the contributions we’re making to the world around us. I hope professional designers learn to enable that, more than controlling it. The B School at Stanford is introducing non-designers to design, which is great.

Q: What can we do to simplify the rules?

TB: The unstated bit of my thesis is that you still have to stop and design something. We develop an idea, perhaps more through iteration. That process doesn’t change. For rebuilding a complex system, maybe big data will help us to see patterns that allow us to understand what we’re designing’s complex effects…but I don’t think we’re there yet. We should be thinking about the hooks we’re building in. I’m big into APIs that allow other people to build with what you’ve built.

Q: Is it training or DNA that determines a good employee for you?

TB: Both. We hire people straight out of grad school because they’re moldable. We hire older people, but it’s harder for them to adapt. I don’t have much control as CEO. The future of all businesses is to have cultures that are a s self-governing as possible. That’s much more resilient and agile than cultures built on inflexible rule sets.

Q: I chair a land conservancy. We create parks in urban areas. Does Ideo have much experience in designing to create behaviors that will get people to use parks? What’s your view of the state of park design?

TB: We don’t have a lot of expertise in designing anything because we like designing everything. The High Line and the West Side park in NYC are remarkable examples. Projects like that show that parks can be remarkable assets to the city. We’re working with High Line on the third phase of that project. NYC’s life expectancy has gone up 3 yrs. Two explanations: People are closer to health facilities, and people walk more.

Q: What are the logistics of running a decentralized org? Mentoring? Sharing a vision?

TB: Purpose creates a sense of direction, so we talk about why the heck we’re doing what we’re doing. We think we should measure everything we do based on the impact it has on the word. We’ve done an occasionally decent job of mentoring; that can be a problem with a decentralized org. It’s a tension. Most of our employees probably want more mentoring, but we also want autonomy. We are not big believers in warehousing knowledge. Designers hate reusing other people’s ideas. It’s much better to have knowledge systems that inspire people to think in new ways. So we’re a storytelling culture. It’s a bit of an obsession of ours. If you do a piece of work, your job is to have some stories to tell about it. That’s more effective than big reports that live in a database somewhere.

(JF calls for all remaining questions)

Q: My group works with at-risk youth. Education is increasingly standards based, but your work is collaborative.

Q: How do you look at chaos? People in open markets are open and affectionate. In corporate controlled spaces, people shut down.

Q: Does form drive function or vice versa?

Q: Apple is a closed system. Google wants more control. Open vs. controlled systems?

TB: 1. University ed is not always the best way to teach entrepreneurship. Apprenticeships are interesting. 2. Great markets are vibrant, but not chaotic. I take clients to the Ferry building to point out all the interrelated pieces that make that such a great experience. It’s not top down, but you can see the patterns and use them as inspiration. 3. Form follow function? Hard to kick that notion because I believe in beautiful engineering, but most things we’re designing today have hundreds of functions, so you can’t get a single form for it. 4. I love closed systems but I think they’re inevitably part of an open system. IOS is part of an open system of everything else that I do with it. We need both. [At last! Something I disagree with! Sort of! :)]

[Fantastic. I've been a huge fan of Ideo's work, and Ideo's organizational ethos, and Tim Brown, for a long time. So I felt particularly narcissistic as I heard this talk through Cluetrain and Too Big to Know lenses. Substitute "knowledge" for "design" and you get a lot of the ideas in 2b2k. To hear them coming from Tim Brown, who is a personal idol of mine, was a self-centered thrill.]


[2b2k][mesh] Andy Carvin

Andy Carvin (@acarvin) is being interviewed by Mathew Ingram at Mesh.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

He’s cut back to hundreds of tweets now, rather than the 1,400 he did at the height of the Arab Spring. He says Twitter shut him down for a bit on Feb. 2 on the day of the Battle of the Camel in Egypt because his volume was so high that he looked like a spammer. He contacted Twitter and they turned him back on in 15 minutes.

He went to NPR at 2006 as “senior strategist,” an intentionally vague title. He says his real role is Guinea Pig in Residence. He gets to tinker with tools and methodologies. In Dec. 2010 he began to see tweets from Tunisia from people he knew, about the protest self-immolation of a street vendor. He had a loose network of bloggers he knew over the years, in part from participating in Global Voices. “When something important happens, the network comes back to life.” He had an intuition that the protests might expand into a genuine revolution. None of the mainstream media were covering it. [PS: Here's a very cool and useful interactive timeline of Arab Spring, from The Guardian.]

Mathew: The role of social media? Andy: Each country has been very different. “I don’t call this the Twitter Revolution or a Social Media Revolution, because I couldn’t then look in the eye of someone who lost a family member” engaged in the protests. Facebook was a way to get word out to lots of people. A researcher recently has said that simple information exchange at a place like Facebook was a public act, broadcasting to people, a declaration, helping to nudge the revolution forward. “Because it was not anonymous,” notes Andy.

Expats curated news and footage and spread it. “In the last couple of days of the Tunisian revolution, people were using Facebook and Twitter to identify sniper nests.” People would say don’t go to a particular intersection because of the snipers. It spread from country to country. He says that Libyans were tweeting about the day the revolution should begin. “It was literally like they were using Outlook appointments.”

How did he curate the twitterers? He kept lists in each country. It’s probably about 500 people. But a total of about 2,000 people are in a loose network of folks who will respond to his questions and requests (e.g., for translations).

Mathew: You weren’t just retweeting. Andy: Yes. I didn’t know anyone in Libya. I didn’t know who to trust. I started asking around if anyone knows Libyan expats. I picked up the phone/skype. I got leads. At the beginning I was following maybe 10 people. And then it scaled up. When the videos came out the mainstream media wouldn’t run them because they weren’t sure they were from Libya. But Andy tweeted them, noting that there’s uncertainty, and asking for help. A Libyan would tweet back that they recognize the east Libyan accent, or someone recognized a Libyan court house which Google images then confirmed.

Mathew: Were you inherently skeptical? Andy: I was inherently curious. I compiled source lists, seeing who’s following people I trusted, seeing how many followers and how long they’ve tweeted, and how they are talking to one another. Eventually I’d see that some are married, or are related. Their relationships made it more likely they were real.

Mathew: You were posting faster than news media do. They do more verification. Andy: Which is why I get uncomfortable when people prefer my twitter feed as a newswire. It’s not a newswire. It’s a newsroom. It’s where I’m trying to separate fact from fiction, interacting with people. That’s a newsroom.

Mathew: You were doing what I was talking with David W [that's me!] about: using a network of knowledge. Andy: A NYT reporter tweeted that he was trying to figure out what a piece of ordinance was. Andy tweeted it and one of his followers identified it precisely. It took 45 mins. The guy who figured it out was a 15 year old kid in Georgia who likes watching the Military channel.

Sometimes Andy gives his followers exercises. E.g., his followers picked apart a photo that was clearly photoshopped. What else did they find in it? They found all sorts of errors, including that the president of Yemen had two ears on one side. It becomes an ad hoc world wide social experiment in Internet literacy. It’s network journalism, collaborative journalism, process journalism. Andy says he doesn’t like the term “curator,” but there are times when that’s what he’s doing. There are other times when he’s focused on realtime verification. He likes the term “dj” better. He’s getting samples from all over, and his challenge is to “spin it out there in a way that makes people want to dance.”

[It opens up to audience questions]

Q: Are people more comfortable talking to you as a foreign journalist?

Yes. Early on, people vouched for me. But once I hit my stride, people knew me before their revolution began and I’d be in touch with them. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

Q: How should journalists use Twitter?

They have to carve out time to do it. It helps to be ADHD. And when you’re on Twitter, you are who you are. When I’m on Twitter, I’m the guy who has a family and works in his yard. And you have to be prepared to be accountable in real time. When I screw up, my followers tell me. E.g., in Libya there was a video of an injured girl being prepared for surgery. I wrote that and tweeted it. Within 30 seconds a number of people tweeted back to me that she was dead and was being prepared for burial. Andy retweeted what he had been told.

Q [me]: How do we scale you so that there are more of you? And tweeting 1400 times a day isn’t sustainable, so is there a way to scale in that direction as well?

Andy: Every time I felt “Poor me” I remembered that I was sitting on a nice NPR roof deck, tweeting. And when I go home, at 6pm I am offline. I fix dinner, I give the kids a bath, I read to them. If it’s a busy time, I’ll go back online for an hour.

He would tweet when he went offline for bits during Arab Spring, and would explain why, in part so people would understand that he’s not in the Middle East and not in danger.

About scaling: A lot of what I do is teachable. The divide between those in journalism who use social media and those who don’t is about how comfortable they are being transparent. Also, if you’re responsible for a beat, it’s understandable why you haven’t tried it. Editors should think about giving journalists 20% time to cultivate their sources online, building their network, etc. You get it into people’s job descriptions. You figure it out.

Q: [mathew] On the busy days, you needed someone to curate you.

That began to happen when I brought on a well-known Saudi Blogger [couldn't get his name]. He was curating user-generated content from Syria. He was curating me, but his sources were better than mine, so I began retweeting him.

Q: How do you address the potential for traumatic stress, which you can suffer from even if you’re not in the field?

Andy: In Feb. I learned the term “vicarious PTSD.” The signs were beginning. The first videos from Libya and Bahrain were very graphic. But I have a strong support network on line and with my family. I feel it’s important to talk about this on Twitter. If I see a video of a dead child, I’ll vent about, sometimes in ways that as a journalist are not appropriate, but are appropriate as a human. If I ever become like a TV detective who can look at a body on the ground and crack jokes, then I shouldn’t be in this business.

Andy: I do retweet disturbing stuff. The old media were brought into homes, families. So they had to be child-friendly. But with social media, the readers has to decide to be on Twitter and then to follow me. I’ll sometimes retweet something and say that people shouldn’t open it, but it needs to be out there. There have been some videos I haven’t shared: sexual assaults, executions, things involving kids. I draw the line.

[Loved it loved it loved it. Andy perfectly modeled a committed journalist who remains personal, situated, transparent, and himself.]


[2b2k] 14 reasons why the Britannica failed on paper

In the straight-up match between paper and Web, the Encyclopedia Britannica lost. This was as close to a sure thing as we get outside of the realm of macro physics and Meryl Streep movies.

  1. The EB couldn’t cover enough: 65,000 topics compared to the almost 4M in the English version of Wikipedia.

  2. Topics had to be consistently shrunk or discarded to make room for new information. E.g., the 1911 entry on Oliver Goldsmith was written by no less than Thomas Macaulay, but with each edition, it got shorter and shorter. EB was thus in the business of throwing out knowledge as much as it was in the business of adding knowledge.

  3. Topics were confined to rectangles of text. This is of course often a helpful way of dividing up the world, but it is also essentially false. The “see also’s” and the attempts at synthetic indexes and outlines (Propædi) helped, but they were still highly limited, and cumbersome to use.

  4. All the links were broken.

  5. It was expensive to purchase.

  6. If you or your family did not purchase it, using it required a trip to another part of town where it was available only during library hours.

  7. It was very slow to update — 15 editions since 1768 — even with its “continuous revision” policy.

  8. Purchasers were stuck with an artifact that continuously became wronger.

  9. Purchasers were stuck with an artifact that continuously became less current.

  10. It chose topics based on agendas and discussions that were not made public.

  11. You could not see the process by which articles were written and revised, much less the reasoning behind those edits.

  12. It was opaque about changes and errors.

  13. There were no ways for readers to contribute or participate. For example, underlining in it or even correcting errors via marginalia would get you thrown out of the library. It thus crippled the growth of knowledge through social and networked means.

  14. It was copyrighted, making it difficult for its content to be used maximally.

Every one of the above is directly or indirectly a consequence of the fact that the EB was a paper product.

Paper doesn’t scale.

Paper-based knowledge can’t scale.

The Net scales.

The Net scales knowledge.


I should probably say something nice about the Britannica:

  1. Extremely smart, very dedicated people worked on it.

  2. It provided a socially safe base for certain sorts of knowledge claims.

  3. Owning it signaled that one cared about knowledge, and it’s good for our culture for us to be signaling that sort of thing.


The inestimably smart and wise Matthew Battles has an excellent post on the topic (which I hesitate to recommend only because he refers to “Too Big to Know” overly generously).


Love thy neighbor by disrespecting his faith

My monthly column at Kmworld is about how the digital network has changed the basics of curation….

Here’s a sentence from the first paragraph of a long email solicitation I received today:

Truth Unlocked: Keys to Reaching Your Muslim Neighbor ( is a project that we feel God inspired us to create to help Christians to reach out to, form relationships with and simply love, Muslims here in North America.

Cool, I thought! Christians reaching out to Muslims in acceptance and love.

It took me until the end to come to the full realization what this is about:

Reaching out to the lost needs to be at the very top of our priority list as Evangelical Christians and we know that we need good tools in place to be able to Evangelize well.



I believe I got onto this group’s mailing list because I am on the Christian Alerts mailing list to stop Barack Hussein Obama from replacing the Christian American justice system with Sharia Law. It’s true!


Contentious hermeneutics

My friend AKMA has posted part I of his research and reflections into the “Old Testament” writings about death. AKMA is a friend, and a truly learned, open-minded, and open-hearted theologian. It’s fascinating watching him doing his preliminary research, sorting through the death references from within his Christian frame, although AKMA being AKMA, he’s mainly pointing out ways the Jewish testament does not support the Christian testament’s ideas about death; AKMA is carefully avoiding (I believe) the assumption that Christianity completes the Jewish beginning.

Even so, as I read his thoughtful interpretation, I was struck by how differently he proceeds than would my orthodox Jewish friends (one of whom is my wife :). They’re learned scholars as well, and they of course at times traverse the testament to find all the references to a topic under discussion. But the next step is different. My orthodox friends understand the text only in conversation with the tradition of great scholars — rabbis — who are interpreting the text. It wouldn’t occur to them to try to understand the text apart from that great conversation. Of course AKMA also understands the text through the interpretations that surround it; he is, after all, an extremely well-versed scholar. But it’s different. For the Jews, the rabbinic conversation is, essentially, a part of the text.

And, it’s worth pointing out that that interpretative tradition is fully embraced as unresolved. The rabbis disagree, and this is a good thing. A scholarly discussion that does not point out and defend the disputations has failed. Thus, the tradition is self-contradictory. But, my orthodox friends bridle at that phrase because when you call something self-contradictory, you usually mean to say that it’s flawed; at least one of the sides needs to be rejected, or you need to mystically embrace the paradox. For orthodox scholars, to reject one of the great sources would be to lessen the tradition. And mystically accepting all sides would end the perpetual argument that in a real sense is Judaism. Rather, it’s accepted that we humans are not up to the task of finally understanding the world or the G-d that created it. But we are commanded to keep trying. So, we need as many learned points of view as possible, and we especially need to understand them in their very disagreement. The Jewish understanding of its eternal text is the continuing contentious discussion.

This divergence of argument occurs on the basis of agreement about an unchanging text. We’ve been given an original text that stays literally the same; its letters are copied from one text to another with error-checking procedures that keep the sequences of letters quite reliable. But the text does not speak for itself. It needs to be read and interpreted. That interpretation cannot be accomplished by an individual or even by a community. It requires a history: a set of conversations within the community, arguing about the text across time and circumstance. Thus, an unchanging text can remain relevant because its meaning is not apart from or behind the interpretation, but is in the history of interpretation by an argumentative community.

The perpetual argument is driven by a need to resolve questions of behavior: how the Law is to be applied to a particular dilemma. What constitutes sufficiently koshering an oven when you move into a new apartment? Your rabbi rules, citing text, tradition and its interpreters. The rabbi one synagogue over might well rule differently. That’s ok. That’s how it works: local rabbis refer to a contentious set of interpreters operating from a single text, following rules of argument and evidence. This ties the community to a continuous tradition and an eternal text, while allowing for progressively relevant interpretation and for a multiplicity that enables Jews to not only to live with disagreement, but to flourish within it.

AKMA has written brilliantly about the diversity of interpretation as reflected through his own commitment: differential hermeneutics , and also here and here, among other places. This is a difference in traditions that is reflected in differences in interpretative practices. It is a difference we should embrace.

[Disclosure: I am a non-observant, agnostic Jew. There is no chance that I have gotten the above right.]


My friend Jacob Meskin read a draft of this and has been very helpful, as have several other people, none of whom entirely agree with what I’ve written. Jacob passed along the following from Levinas:

“The Revelation as calling to the unique within me is the significance particular to the signifying of the Revelation. It is as if the multiplicity of persons — is not this the very meaning of the personal? — were the condition for the plenitude of ‘absolute truth’; as if every person, through his uniqueness, were the guarantee of the revelation of a unique aspect of truth, and some of its points would never have been revealed if some people had been absent from mankind. This is not to say that truth is acquired anonymously in History, and that it finds ‘supporters’ in it! On the contrary, it is to suggest that the totality of the true is constituted from the contribution of multiple people: the uniqueness of each act of listening carrying the secret of the text; the voice of the Revelation, as inflected, precisely, by each person’s ear, would be necessary to the ‘Whole’ of the truth. That the Word of the living God may be heard in diverse ways does not mean only that the Revelation measures up to those listening to it, but that this measuring up measures up the Revelation: the multiplicity of irreducible people is necessary to the dimensions of meaning; the multiple meanings are multiple people. We can thus see the whole impact of the reference made by the Revelation to exegesis, to the freedom of this exegesis, the participation of the person listening to the Word making itself heard, but also the possibility for the Word to travel down the ages to announce the same truth in different times.” [ From “Revelation in the Jewish Tradition” (1977), in Beyond The Verse, trans. Gary D. Mole, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp.133-134]

Jacob points out that Levinas is saying this within a context that assumes a tradition of revered rabbinic commentators who are touchstones for the conversation. Without that understanding, this particular passage could lead one to think that Jews feel free to interpret any which way they want. No, our argument has bounds.


Lincoln on Shakespeare

Douglas L. Wilson has a lovely article that tries to make sense of what we know about Lincoln’s love of Shakespeare. He argues that one fact about the performance of Shakespeare at the time illuminates comments Lincoln made to actors and friends. (No spoilers here, my friends!)

BTW, we learn early on in the article that Lincoln thought Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy was outdone by the one in which Claudius wonders whether forgiveness is possible for his murder of his brother.

Oh, my offence is rank. It smells to heaven.
It hath the primal eldest curse upon ’t,
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not.
Though inclination be as sharp as will,
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursèd hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood?
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what’s in prayer but this twofold force,
To be forestallèd ere we come to fall
Or pardoned being down? Then I’ll look up.
My fault is past. But oh, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn, “Forgive me my foul murder”?
That cannot be, since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder:
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardoned and retain th’ offense?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law. But ’tis not so above.
There is no shuffling. There the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compelled,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. What then? What rests?
Try what repentance can. What can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limèd soul that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels. Make assay.
Bow, stubborn knees, and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe.
All may be well. (kneels)

[(SparkNotes' translation is here.]

I’ll stay away from the cheap psychologizing about Lincoln’s interest in the forgivability of unforgivable crimes during a war waged at least in part against slavery. Instead I’ll offer cheap psychologizing about the theme of the doubleness of self — with the attendant heightened perception of one’s self as always at issue — that seems to go through Lincoln’s favorite passages.

Finally, I might note that articles like this one show the value of experts, something we dare not lose in the networking of knowledge (in case anyone was wondering).


My Top Ten Top Ten Top Ten list

Here’s my top ten list of top ten lists of top ten lists:

  1. The Top Ten Top Ten Lists of All Time

  2. TopTenz Miscellaneous

  3. MetaCritic music lists

  4. Smosh’s Top Ten Top Ten Lists of 2011

  5. Top Ten 2011 Top Ten Lists about CleanTech

  6. Top Ten of top ten horror movie lists

  7. NYT Top Ten Top Ten Lists for 2011

  8. Top Ten Top Ten Lists about Agile Management

  9. Top Ten Top Ten Video Lists of 2011

  10. Brand Media Strategies Top Ten Top Ten Lists

Come on, people! If just nine more of you compile top ten top ten top tens we can take it up a level!

Bonus: The media can’t get enough of top ten lists. When they run out, they write about why they write about top ten lists:

  1. The New Yorker

  2. Forbes

  3. NPR

  4. NY Times

  5. Discover

  6. CBS

  7. Poynter


[Later that day:] I’ve removed one from the list so that there are actually ten, not eleven. Oops. (And again, later, because I am a @#$%ing moron.)