2007 Review, 2008 Preview

This entry is part 1 of 15 in the series Annual Roundups

I launched ribbonfarm on July 4, 2007, which means it’s 6 months old as of the New Year. Here is a comprehensive review, with a full list of articles to-date, as well as selected highlights, including guesstimates of the “most popular” and “least popular” articles, and thoughts on what I am likely to write about in 2008. I hope you take this opportunity to look at some of the pieces you may have missed (especially those who came in late). I have a request — please forward this heavy-duty review post to your colleagues, friends and family, with specific recommendations on the articles you personally enjoyed. I am hoping to snare a lot of new readers with this review.

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Coarse Actions, Fine Actions

A Happy New Year to all ribbonfarm readers. It’s been a month since my last post, primarily due to a chaotic 3-week vacation in India. 2008 is shaping up to be a year of action for me, so I thought it would be appropriate to start off my 2008 blogging year by chasing down some elusive thoughts on the nature of action that have bothered me for a while. The theme of these thoughts is roughly this: we recognize and apply distinctions between coarse big-picture and fine, detail-oriented thinking. We also recognize equivalent distinctions in sensation, observation and measurement through sophisticated notions of precision, resolution and noise. Yet we don’t commonly apply the same distinction to action, outside of specialized domains like painting (“broad strokes”). I don’t mean here distinctions like strategy vs. tactics — those apply to thinking about action. I mean a distinction of coarseness/fineness applied to actions themselves. The sort implied by adjectives such as ‘surgical’ or ‘blunt instrument.’ Let’s poke. Carrot: I’ll end with a personality test on your action ‘type.’

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Sapir-Whorf, Lakoff, Metaphor and Thought

“What is thought?” is a question that is foundational by any reasonable measure. The best short answer I have found so far has been “thought is conceptual metaphor,” and it is one of the enduring regrets of my life that it took me so long to encounter this answer. An undergraduate friend (hi there Max!) introduced me to George Lakoff and the notion he introduced, conceptual metaphor, just as I was finishing up my PhD, and it radically altered my thinking (and my thinking about thinking, a.k.a philosophy) from that point on. I can only wonder how different my life would have been if I’d read Metaphors We Live By as an undergraduate. So here is a discursive introduction to these ideas.

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The Fine Art of Opportunism

There are four major approaches to decision-making: deliberative, reactive, procedural and opportunistic. The first three are well-understood. Academics study them, business and military leaders practice them, self-improvement gurus teach them and hippies protest them. Ordinary people understand them in common-sense ways. Opportunism though, is both the least-understood and highest-impact approach to decision-making. Here is my immodest 101.

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Clockspeed and Business Genetics Reconsidered

Nearly 10 years ago, in Clockspeed, Charles Fine of MIT revived a metaphor for the economy that goes back to at least Herbert Spencer’s essay, On The Social Organism (1860). A colleague recommended the book because I’ve lately been obsessed with issues of speed in innovation. Read as an anecdote-rich exposition of concurrent engineering, it is pretty good. As a justification of its title, it is badly derailed, since the limited discussion of time scales in the business world goes nowhere, least of all towards justification of the subtitle “winning industry control in the age of temporary advantage.” But the book, despite its value, mainly struck me as a massive missed opportunity to explore the metaphor of business genetics. In this piece, I attempt to remedy this gap with the benefit of 10 years of hindsight.

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Visual Thinking with Triangles

We use triangles to visualize certain types of mathematical and non-mathematical relations and concepts. Unlike 2d and 3d visualizations, triangles aren’t mathematically coherent in any intuitive way. So let’s try and figure out the logic of triangular representations of ideas, and why we use triangles so extensively but not other shapes. Here are two common examples:

Triangle Visualizations

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The Deeper Meaning of Kindle

The Kindle ebook reader, the Wacom digitizing tablet, and a variety of scanning digital pens. Add it all up, and you get a possible revolution in one of the oldest technologies of humankind: written language. Only an impact on fire or the wheel could top a serious revolution in reading and writing. This is not a product blog, and for a technophile (but not gadget-phile) engineer, I am surprisingly behind the times. While my wife is all about the iPod, personal DVD players and electric toothbrushes, I am still at two-bladed shaving. But reading and writing (and drawing) get to the core of who I am, and constitute possibly the only sphere of gadgetry where I am willing to be an early adopter. So here are some deeper thoughts on what this potentially perfect storm of technologies might mean for us slaves of the written word.

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A Surfer’s Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything

Garrett Lisi, a freelance physicist who apparently divides his time between surfing in Hawaii and snowboarding in Lake Tahoe, has come up with a new (and apparently falsifiable) approach to unifying quantum mechanics and gravity without using superstring theory, and is being taken seriously. I’ve blogged about the problems in physics before, and in the context of that unfolding drama, this appears to be viewed as a win for the heterodox camp (which includes digital physics). Even if it is ultimately proved wrong, there seems to have been some movement, and what is interesting to us non-physicists is that it seems to require a complete break with the establishment to make progress.

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How to be an Idea Person

A private sense of humor has been key to my sanity for several years now. It has helped me deal with the label Idea Guy that I acquired as a kid, and have never since shaken off. Once I realized that it was a (very) mixed blessing, I went from downplaying it, to being alternately defensive or assertive about it, to resisting it, to trying hopelessly to “fix” it, to finally finding a way to accept and manage it. Acceptance, for me, has involved a private joke of a self-image that is a mix of Camus’ Sisyphus and the Max Fischer character in Rushmore, coupled with a model of the ‘Idea Guy’ mental style as a chronic medical condition. I don’t know if you’ll find the medical metaphor in this piece funny, but you might find it useful. This is not a piece about becoming an idea person. That is not something you choose. It is a condition you have to manage, like diabetes, once you recognize  it. [Read more…]

The Age of Speed by Vince Poscente

I was all set to be annoyed by this short book, but ended up being charmed by its cheery good-nature and earnest focus on its theme. The Age of Speed by Vince Poscente is a self-conscious little business book that is a little too aware of itself, and by no means an intellectual heavy-hitter.

Yet, perhaps because of that, it gets the job done. It drives home the message that irrespective of what you are doing (at least in the world of private enterprise), you should probably be learning how to do it faster. The message that the pace of change is important is not new — it goes back at least to Alvin Toffler and Future Shock (1970). What Poscente does is make a neat little case for adopting a certain philosophical attitude towards speed (namely “addiction” — pun not intended).

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