How the Internet is Really Evolving

Sometimes really smart people, perhaps because they are harried or busy, help perpetuate badly flawed models of important ideas. Memes that get traction because they are easy to repeat, not because they are right. One that I’ve noticed a lot in recent times is what I call the sequential fallacy in talking about the Internet. This fallacy is at the heart of the story that goes ARPANET…Web 1.0…Web 2.0…Web 3.0/SemWeb. Here is how to get away from the fallacy and think more accurately about how the Internet is really evolving.

[Read more…]

The Broken Brain Books

There is a short paragraph in Steven Johnson’s excellent Mind Wide Open that, for me, marks a turning point in both popular science writing about the brain, and pop psychology. Here is the bit that was an Aha! moment for me:

…while it is interesting to find out [the] exact addresses [of brain functions], that information is ultimately unsatisfying. Call it the “neuromap fallacy.” If neuroscience turns out to be mostly good at telling us the location of the “food craving center” or the “jealousy” center,” then it will be of limited relevance to ordinary people seeking a new kind of self-awareness — because learning where jealousy lives in your head doesn’t make you understand the emotion any more clearly. Those neuromaps will be of great interest to scientists of course, and doctors. But to the layperson, they will be little more than trivia.

Now why does this statement represent a watershed moment in popular writing about our brains and psychology?

[Read more…]

How to Pick Business and Self-Improvement Books

After a couple of decades of yo-yo-ing between Stuart Smalley-like solemn earnestness and Dilbertish disdain towards all self-improvement literature and business books (two genres with very similar conventions, intellectual cultures and authorial intentions), I think I’ve developed a pretty good system for picking out the winners and weeding out the losers. Here’s my algorithm, with some fun examples of both good and bad.

[Read more…]

Mousetrap 2.0: A Comicbook

[Newsflash: this comic-book story has now appeared in print: in Massively Multi-Agent Technology in the Springer Lecture Notes in Computer Science series. If your institution has access to this publication, you can view the “official” version of the paper  here (you may need to copy and paste the URL into your browser). Yay! I am now a published comic-book author].

A few months ago, Paul Scerri, an AI researcher at Carnegie-Mellon, got in touch to ask if I wanted to contribute a chapter to a book he was editing — an academic volume on “massive multiagent systems,” or systems comprising very large number of simple autonomous devices that interact with each other and humans. Somehow, that conversation led to me producing a comic-book format, quasi-fictional story. I scripted and rough-sketched the story, and a local Rochester artist, Brian Petty, turned them into finished illustrations. So here, for your merriment and technical-visionary thought-provocation, is my first graphic novelette and the story of how it came to be.

Comic cover

(Cover: click for larger image) [Read more…]

2007 Review, 2008 Preview

This entry is part 1 of 16 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.

[Read more…]

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.’

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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

[Read more…]