Wednesday Jan 13, 2010

The Necessity of Making Mistakes

Nice article on the brain biology behind how scientists actually create science. Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up. Recognizing anomalies, making mistakes, being challenged, and engaging in conversation are all critically important elements that make science work. Context and perspective matter greatly as well. Seems all very human to me. I`m not so much interested in the brain chemistry that influences behavior in science (you can see this in partisan politics as well), but what fascinates me more is the notion that with this awareness you can dig yourself out of the natural traps that catch most people, and that can lead to new opportunities that only a few generally see.

From the article:

Modern science is populated by expert insiders, schooled in narrow disciplines. Researchers have all studied the same thick textbooks, which make the world of fact seem settled. This led Kuhn, the philosopher of science, to argue that the only scientists capable of acknowledging the anomalies — and thus shifting paradigms and starting revolutions — are “either very young or very new to the field.” In other words, they are classic outsiders, naive and untenured. They aren’t inhibited from noticing the failures that point toward new possibilities.

The "acknowledging the anomalies" bit from Thomas Kuhn is key. It may enable you to jump paradigms or start revolutions, which is very cool, but in the process it also gets you a lot of knives buried deeply in your back. So acknowledge carefully. More than a few people have ended up dead challenging paradigms throughout the ages. Granted, the deaths are at the extreme, but why go through all that if it`s not necessary. Start small. Pick off what you can. Even though most people usually can't change the paradigms in which they live, they can change the small things in their world by recognizing and resolving anomalies that crop up every day. Then, hopefully, over time the small changes add up to big changes. And when you are focusing on this process, you are more apt to spot big paradigm shifts coming along and you can jump when the opportunity is right. So, don`t be afraid to poke around and change your position and screw up from time to time. Failure is important. It helps you succeed.

Thursday Sep 24, 2009

Redefine Facts, Jump Paradigms

An Operating System for the Mind, Stephen Downes. I tend to agree with Downes in this piece how to think about education in the 21st Century. He is articulating a fresh approach to the "skills" vs "core knowledge" debate and it seems empowering and flexible. My complaint with the common core view of the world is that although I value a Liberal Arts education to a certain degree I find it expensive, poorly delivered, and lacking in practical skills to earn a living. At the other extreme I am critical of the facts/skills-only crew who pay lip service to a more common base of knowledge from which to build and grow and diversify (and enjoy). Both views lock you into one or another paradigm, and there seems to be a political agenda underlying both as well. Instead, the operating system view from Downes seems to be a paradigm breaker. I like it. He redefines facts themselves and offers a way of engaging facts to learn and act. It gives you the perspective you need to jump paradigms when you need to -- which is getting more and more often these days since everything is changing so fast out there. Give the Downes post a read. It`s a tad on the long and complex side but it`s well worth it.

Sunday Jun 13, 2004


I went to see science fiction writer Bruce Sterling -- "The Singularity: Your Life as a Black Hole" -- on Friday nite. Now, I've never read a science fiction book in my life, and I have no clue who Bruce Sterling is. But when I read Simon's post directing me to WorldChanging for more Sterling info, well, then I was hooked. Gotta go. Especially since it was just 10 minutes from my apartment in San Francisco. And more importantly, I don't want my life to be a black hole, now do I?

So, here's my take. I don't buy this notion of "Singularity" ... where in the very near future technology progresses so rapidly that life becomes incomprehensible to us. In other words, a super paradigm shift, a complete break from the past, so utterly complete, in fact, that it transcends our very understanding and ability to describe it (which begs the question, of course, how we could have so many articles attempting to do just that). WorldChanging has links to some interesting pieces on this. I skimmed 'em. Sorry. I don't buy it. Sounds like the preachers of "the new economy" and the "end of the business cycle" just around, say, mid-2000, just before absolutely everything that Silicon Valley promised collapsed under it's own hollow hype. But that's just me. To be fair, there are some interesting bits in those articles, but "the singularity" as a concept sounds like science fiction. Nothing more. Could make a good movie, I bet, but I probably wouldn't read the book.

Sterling's speech, though, was excellent. He's an extremely clever guy and a great talker. Even though I don't know science fiction and didn't get most of his jokes, I found myself laughing at every turn. He's that good rhetorically. He spent most of his time poking fun at various Singularity proponents, carefully not going too far because, really, who knows, right? The guys over at WorldChanging summed up the speech up perfectly with this once sentence Sterling uttered near the end of his talk: "The future is a process, not a destination. The future is not a noun, it's a verb." I agree.

However, driving home I found myself more and more disappointed. Sterling spent too much time undermining the Singularity only to end on the remarkably anti-climatic, "The future is a process, not a destination. The future is not a noun, it's a verb." Pretty ordinary observation, I'd say. While at the same time he dropped bombs like, "We don't know what it means to be conscious" (rough quote), and "I'm not really concerned about a singularity as much as I am with the radical manipulation of human cognition ... because those people may have very little to say to us" (again, rough quote). Audience reaction? Silence. Wow. I would have loved for him to explore those issues because it seemed to me that was the real essence of Sterling's views. Maybe next time.

Note: If I'm wrong and this Singularity thing is real, then this excellent article articulates how open source can help ensure that a Singularity occurs in a way that benefits everyone, not just the powerful.

Friday Mar 19, 2004

How to Define Open Community

I spent some time at the Open Source Business Conference this week in San Francisco and was struck by the behavior of Microsoft. Impressed, too. They sponsored, they did a keynote, they participated on panels, they talked up the lawyers, and they didn't spark any controversy. There was no talk of cancer and anti-American trends, either. On the contrary, I heard several people say, "Hey, Microsoft is here to learn." Pretty innoxious performance, I'd say.

But here's where it gets insidious. What they did was interesting rhetorically, and Aristotle -- the guy who first quantified rhetoric -- would be proud. They carefully mixed two terms with the intention of redefining both of them. Very smart. Basically, they said: "We are here to learn about open source, but 'community' is not exclusive to open source. We have a community program, too, and it's called shared source." Nice. Expand the term community on which open source is built by associating it with a program not based on open community concepts at all. It's a distinction with a pretty big difference. The term community means something very specific to open source developers, and Microsoft's shared source doesn't fit that definition. If you call them on it, they will gladly admit the distinction, but then they go about their business of redefining and elevating their program to community status until it's part of the open source vernacular. It's just another community model, after all, and we all know there are many different community models.

But at an open source conference? Perfect place, actually. But I think they are on the edge of what is generally accepted as the definition of an open community. Granted, there are passionate debates among developers about various open community models. NetBeans, Jxta, Linux, Apache, Gnome, Mozilla, OpenOffice, etc. All different, but all based on openness and sharing that benefits all involved.

Open source developers are not fooled by this, of course, but as Tim O'Reilly says, OSBC was filled with hundreds of lawyers, who are themselves expert rhetoricians. The conference was also filled with business people who rightly need to build profit-making models around emerging open source development methodologies. I'm not hitting lawyers and business people here. However, as the open source community matures and diversifies, multiple communities are growing and this gives Microsoft an opportunity to redefine terms and change the definition of what an open community means.

Thursday Mar 18, 2004

Paradigms well Defined

Tim O'Reilly spoke at the Open Source Business Conference yesterday in San Francisco and correctly cited Thomas Kuhn as the historian who popularized the concept of paradigms. This was refreshing since many people in technology toss around the word "paradigm" a bit too casually. The implications of paradigms are powerful and deserve the utmost respect, especially if you want to survive a paradigm shift.

Kuhn wrote in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions about the evolution of science and how the field grew through a series of major paradigm shifts -- one paradigm replacing the other not one built on top of the other, as our science textbooks suggest. Tim drew the parallel to the technology industry brilliantly.

Paradigms and their effect on technology was also beautifully explained by Clayton Christensen at the conference during his two hour evening keynote to a standing room only audience. Christensen, though, uses terms like innovation and disruption to explain his theories in The Innovator's Dilemma and The Innovator's Solution.

All three books are landmarks of strategic thought. They will terrify you if you are stuck in Christensen's sustaining technology or in Kuhn's normal science, but the books are also liberating for those who understand and embrace the phenomenon. Embrace it and succeed. Ignore it and fail. History demonstrates the concept with painful and exhilarating clarity -- depending on what side of the paradigm you are on, of course.

Update: Tim wrote up his talk as a comprehensive article here.


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