Typo (4): (no) Standard English

[The task of documenting all the words in the English lanuguage] no longer seems finite. Lexicographers are accepting the languages boundlessness. They know by heart Murray’s famous remark: “The circle of the English language had a well defined centre but no discernable circumference.” In the centre are the words everyone knows. At the edges, where Murray placed slang and cant and scientific jargon and foreign border crossers, everyone’s sense of the language differed and no one’s can be called “standard.”

James Gleick – The Information

Sketchpad studio springboard

Fit for Purpose or Good Enough mean different things depending on what we’re talking about, who it’s for and where and how it’s going to be seen – which is to say that they exist in a network, and that Good Enough can change even for a single piece of work.

This often happens as a function of time:

  • Dirt roads might work for a village, but they’re not really Good Enough for a town.
  • 30 kids copying off a blackboard for an hour or two was a perfectly adequate model of education a few generations ago;
  • What passed as a good website or presentation fifteen years ago rarely stands up today (unless you’re Tom Peters);
  • The writing of Charles Dickens has shifted from being Popular Entertainment to Literature (I doubt much of his work would be serialised in magazines today).

And of place:

  • The famous Fountain was changed simply by being placed in a gallery;
  • Cold beer tastes better on a beautiful beach;
  • We become different people at concerts, in museums, on holiday;
  • A shippable blog post is rarely Good Enough for a book.

And of who we are:

  • Children’s TV is a lot less interesting when you’re no longer a child, and teenage angst gets old as we do;
  • Fox News and The Guardian are indispensable – or not – depending on where you’re coming from;
  • Bat is a delicacy if you’re from Manado.

And – and all of the above are really all examples of this – what it’s connected to:

  • Dickens’ books gain interest and value in relationship to each other, and to Das Kapital, and to TV adaptations;
  • The Beatles’ studio outtakes and rehearsals were by definition not good enough – but became collectible in relationship to all those A-sides, and with time;
  • The contents of Da Vinci’s sketchbooks weren’t Good Enough for a gallery when he was filling them.

Which brings me to the variable quality of posts here, and who and what they’re for. Some are ready to share. Some are sketches. All gain value (for me at least) in relationship to the rest as hummus, hinterland and springboard to something new, and to a better Good Enough.

Velcro, geckos, and making friends

Some ideas for strengthening your connections within a group of people or scene:

  • Have good, generous intentions. Show up to serve or share where it’s needed and wanted and because being part of this network is its own reward (you like the people, you like what they do), rather than for what you might get out of it.
  • Start small – person by person. It’s helpful to think of the group as a network of people rather than as a a monolithic whole.
  • Relationships and trust take time – but the right group settings or events can speed this up.
  • First impressions always count – but not nearly as much as what you do and say consistently over time. People who know and trust you will interpret you generously and shrug off the clumsy mistakes that we all inevitably make as just that – understandable, human clumsiness. People who love you will stick with you through your real mistakes – the ones where you should have known better.
  • Build on connections – friendships, relationships – that you already have.
  • Lots of loose connections are helpful – relationships where you know them a bit, they know you a bit, and you share a general positive regard for each other. Each loose connection is like a single hook-and-loop in a piece of velcro – weak on its own, but strong when combined with many others. (see also: gecko feet)
  • … but the 80/20 rule will be at work here – a few people will be very interested in your contribution, and a few of those will be people you have a good rapport with… and a few of those will be key for helping you to connect with others.
  • Don’t worry too much about people who aren’t that interested in you or what you have to offer: they’re either genuinely not interested, or have something else on their minds, neither of which you can do very much about. Assume that you can’t do too much to influence them (apart, perhaps, if you can help them with their thing, the thing that’s on their minds) – but they might be influenced by the right sort of champion from within the network.

The Onion (3): exemplar interesting problem – learning to read

Problems gain (or lose) interestingness as their context and scale changes.

Take teaching a kids to read as an example. It’s almost inevitable that a child will learn to read given the following ingredients:

  • A supportive family
  • A strong reading culture at home
  • A steady supply of good books
  • A reasonable curriculum or methodology for teaching
  • An well educated, motivated teacher (who could be a parent) who cares about the child who shows up consistently
  • A safe, relatively comfortable, relatively calm environment
  • An absence of specific learning difficulties

These factors form a strong, mutually reinforcing (and robust and self-repairing) network/system that makes learning to read more a matter of process than a problem, per se. If one or two of these ingredients are weak or missing, strength in another area will probably make up the difference. The outcome (learning to read) might take a bit more time, but it will happen.

But the more ingredients that are missing from the system – the looser or weaker the network – the harder (and more interesting) the problem becomes. It’s no longer a case of due process, but of finding a path and doing something new.

To be continued…

The Onion (2): a model for solving interesting problems

My first post about The Onion looked at interesting problems as systems of networked sub-problems, and suggested that our solutions will mirror this structure.

The Onion is also a good metaphor for the process of finding practical solutions: we work from solving the smallest problems in theory, outwards to technical solutions, before we finally build a (networked system of) practical solution that works consistently and at the scale we need.

1) Theoretical problem – theoretical solution

First we work out how – in theory – the problem might be solved. This might be a simple case of gathering information, because the theoretical problem has already been solved – as in the case for all the three problems above.

If the problem doesn’t yet have a theoretical solution, we’ll need to break the problem into smaller pieces, work out what’s missing, and treat the smallest unsolved piece as a new interesting problem. (see the example above: family health)

2) Technical problem – technical solution

Once we have a theoretical solution, the problem becomes a technical one: how do we apply the theoretical solution in the world, in this context, to make the solution actually work? The old saying about the difference between theory and practice holds true here. When we attempt to put our theory to work in practice we uncover buried assumptions and dependencies that make our theory impractical without major revision or lots of additional work to create the conditions in which it will work. So we have a choice: modify the context enough to make the theory work, or modify the theory to better suit the context. Often we do both.

Example technical problems:
Yikes, how to do I reduce the number of horrifically-bad-for-you things that my family eats on a regular basis?
In our context, what does a healthy diet look like?
Given that I can’t source organic kale in my neighbourhood, what are the alternatives?
How do I make kale-alternatives delicious?
Which components of a healthy diet are easiest to add to what we already do?
What habits can I encourage that will make it easier for my family to eat healthily?

3) Practical or scaleable solution

This is often the most overlooked part in solving an interesting problem: what is the ‘wrapper‘ of infrastructure and activity necessary to make the technical solution workable on an ongoing basis.

This is usually about the collection and coordination of scarce resources (time, money, people, other inputs) that are needed to solve the problem reliably.

The Onion (1): understanding interesting problems

This post is a sketch of a way of thinking about how problems work, and what we need to do to make our solutions (“the change we seek to make”) effective. It’s bit abstract – I’ll share a more concrete illustration in a later post.

We often talk about interesting problems as if they’re discrete units:

  • How can I keep my family healthy?
  • How can we split the atom?
  • How can we help more children learn to read?

But all interesting problems really consist of little clusters or bundles (or networked systems) of problems – we just can’t always see what the problem-network looks like until we’ve spent some time working in it.

We can work our way down the problem hierarchy, reducing complexity as we ask smaller (and usually more easily solvable) problems.

Example theoretical problem:
How can I keep my family healthy?
Example sub-problems:
What is a healthy diet? How can I make sure my family has access to it? How can I make sure that they eat it? What foods do they need to avoid, and how can I make sure they do?
What’s a healthy level of exercise?
What about emotional health?

In lots of cases, the sub-problems have sub-problems… and so-on.

We can also work our way further out too, from micro-problems to macro – for example, “How can I help other families to live healthier lifestyles?”

The onion

So we end up with a multi-layered set of nested-problems – ‘the onion’. And effective solutions will mirror this structure of solutions-within-solutions, with each layer creating the necessary conditions for the layers within it – more on this in an upcoming post.

*see also: the wrapper

The time and the energy

As in, “I don’t know where you get them.”

I can’t make more time*, and you almost certainly know more than I do about managing your energy. But here are a couple of thoughts about doing stuff – and having fun – that relate to both.

Diminishing costs

You can (and should) ‘create’ time and energy by saving them through eliminating things from your life.

But you can also save time and energy by doing more, or at least by doing the things you already do more often, because doing them often makes them easier. For lots of things this is simply because you get better at them, so they cost you less time, and often less energy. For other things, the habit of doing them reduces the emotional energy needed to get going, or even to decide to get going.

Some examples:

  • If you exercise regularly, it gets easier
  • If you travel all the time, packing bags and getting to the airport becomes automatic
  • If you blog every day, a blog post can take ten minutes to write instead of two hours.
  • If you make films regularly – if, say, it’s your job – you’re probably an order of magnitude faster than an amateur
  • Giving feedback – and having difficult conversations with people about their work – becomes much easier if you do it relatively frequently
  • Cooking is easier if you do it a lot – you think and look for stuff less and spend more time actually cooking

This is partly about having things set up (you know where your tools are and they’re ready to use when you want them), partly about skill and experience (you’re better at the things you do often, so you’re faster), and partly about decisions (you’ve decided more things in advance and can get straight into the work, rather than sitting around and wondering about what font to use or shoes to wear).

Increasing Returns

For many things things, doing them more also increases their value:

  • Sport and exercise is way more fun when you’re fit. All types of exercise – not just the one you do – become more fun. And as you get fitter you discover more energy and fun in the rest of the day.
  • The more you write about something, the more you have to say about it – the quality of your thinking and ability to express it increases too
  • Cooking is more pleasurable when you’re good at it… people compliment you on your cooking, so you enjoy it more, so you do it more…
  • Reading is more interesting, richer, funnier, more useful the more you’ve read
  • The more you contribute to an area of work (or play), the more rewarding your conversations and relationships become, and the more new people, ideas and opportunities come your way

Some of these are just side-effects of things getting easier, but many things benefit from positive feedback loops and network effects: doing things and making stuff leads you to new ideas, techniques and people, and new things become possible… leading to more new possibilities.

Outcome

If doing something becomes easier, relatively cheaper, faster and more convenient to do at the same time that it becomes more enjoyable and more productive, you’re a lot more likely to feel like doing it… so you’ll find ways to do it, and you’ll do it even when tiredness might have stopped you in the past. And then you’ve got momentum, so you’re less likely to stop… so you’re more likely to enjoy the rewards and do it more.

Voila: time and energy.

*Send me a private message if you do

Machine. Ecosystem. (6) – Kevin Kelly on the techium

Okay, so machines are simple, largely linear, and predictable, and systems are complex, adaptive and ‘dispositional’… but look a bit closer and the distinction gets blurry.

Most systems (individual people, markets, forests to name three) are combinations of sub-systems that are, at the end of the day, made up of simple units. And our machines – especially digital ones – are increasingly complex and interconnected. Even our simplest machines don’t really stand alone – they’re outgrowths of human activity, the product of networks of ideas, activities and resources that allow them to develop, grow, and – if they’re not maintained – fall into obsolescence and decay.

Kevin Kelly calls this the techium*, and describes it brilliantly in What Technology Wants:

Once [19th century economist Johann] Beckmann lowered the mask [of technology, by uniting various arts and sciences under the term technologie], our art and artifacts could be seen as an interdependent components woven into a coherent impersonal unity.

Each new invention requires the viability of previous inventions to keep going. There is no communication between machines without extruded copper nerves of electricity. There is no electricity without mining veins of coal or uranium, or damming rivers, or even mining precious metals to make solar panels. There is no metabolism of factories without the circulation of vehicles. No hammers without saws to cut the handles; no blades without hammers to pound the saw blades. This global-scale, circular interconnected network of systems, subsystems, machines, pipes, roads, wires, conveyor belts, automobiles, servers and routers, codes, calculators, sensors, archives, activators, collective memory, and power generators – this whole grand contraption of interrelated and interdependent pieces forms a single system.

When scientists began to investigate how this system functioned, they soon noticed something unusual: large systems of technology often behave like a very primitive organism. Networks, especially electronic networks, exhibit near-biological behaviour.

Kevin KellyWhat Technology Wants (amazon)

In our organisations, this way of seeing helps us to think about the machines we buy buy of the networks of activity and supply that are necessary to maintain them and run them well – a way of thinking that’s probably automatic in the manufacturing and computer industries, but comes far less naturally in the social sector.

Something as simple as buying a new computer or printer isn’t just that simple. It’s introducing a new organism into an ecosystem, and will require our teams to do the work of acclimatising and adapting to make it really useful. The more complicated or relational a technology is – social media being a prime example – the further the adaptation and unintended consequences go.

*as distinct from specific technologies

Caterina Fake: 5 Cs

If you look at all of the companies that I’ve been involved with and the investments that I’ve made, they are companies that emphasise creativity, communication, connection, collaboration and community.

Caterina Fake – Tim Ferris Show #360

Caterina Fake co-founded Flikr, where they popularised – newsfeeds, tags (which later evolved into hashtags), followers and likes. She played a key role in the development of Etsy, Kickstarter, and a many others besides.

These five Cs are values that she describes as being key to the success of her projects.

What role do they (could they, should they) play in yours, not just for you and your team, but for your partners, donors, customers, clients?