Breadth-Depth Metaphors and Beyond

We commonly use a set of dynamic spatio-temporal orientation and observation conceptual metaphors to talk about knowledge, its communal organization, and individual styles of knowing. We use depth-versus-breadth to talk about track records and abilities, “long-term” versus “short-term” (and “upstream/downstream”) to talk about intentions and decision-making, and “big-picture” versus “details” to talk about the scopes of discourses. All these will come up for critique and more analysis as I continue developing the themes of this blog. But I want to start off this fresh new week with a question for you to ponder: how do you organize your view of knowledge, and how much faith do you have in your organization?

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Framing the Consciousness Debates

What David Chalmers calls the “Hard Problem” of consciousness has been among the main reasons I started this blog. If you view it honestly, it is the last remaining fundamental mystery and, were I to be as extreme as Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, I would go so far as to label it the only problem worth studying (Camus said that about suicide though). I meant to segue into this topic slowly, by first posting reviews of a bunch of relevant books as anchor points for my views, but blog readers have an unsettling habit of jumping the gun, and derailing the best-laid roll-out plan with untidy comments. So here we go. I’ll frame and circumscribe my approach, state my axiomatic commitments, bluntly partition the landscape into the relevant and irrelevant, and we’ll get set for exploring the Last Great Mystery.

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Disruptive versus Radical Innovations

Clayton Christenson’s seminal The Innovator’s Dilemma is now 10 years old, and its central idea of “disruptive innovation” is now part of the everyday language of innovation. Recently, I finally read the book after having loosely tossed the term around for a few years. I was shocked to discover that I had misunderstood the concept and made glib assumptions based on sloppy journalistic references. Properly penitent, I began using the term correctly and discovered, to my further shock, that nearly everybody else around me was also using the term incorrectly. By misunderstanding this one critical term, we lose much of the understanding of the innovator’s dilemma discovered by Christenson. Here is a cheat-sheet to help you understand and remember the implications of ‘disruptive.’ Should help elevate your next profound discussion on the nature of innovation. If you already knew the difference, you get to say “Ha ha!” to me.

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Book Review: Competing on Analytics

I read Competing on Analytics because my boss began swearing by it, and my conversations with her were starting to get seriously confusing. So I bought a copy, and was plowing diligently through it at a local Rochester coffee shop, when a friendly woman — your inevitable next-table laptop warrior — noticed the book, came up to me, and struck up what turned out to be a very interesting conversation (which ended with her heading off to the nearest book store, to buy herself a copy). Since I’ve only ever struck up conversations over a book with random strangers twice before in my life, that struck me as an important piece of evidence in favor of the book. So here is my review-slash-summary.

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Harry Potter and the Cuaron Slam

Occasionally engineering provides me with startling perspectives on art. This happened for me with the third book in the Harry Potter series, the Prisoner of Azkaban, generally acknowledged to be the most accomplished of the series. Critics make a compelling case that among the movies too, Alfonso Cuaron’s treatment of this book has been the best of the lot so far, and better than even the book itself. So let me offer you a perspective on why the third book and movie are great, based on an analogy to a problem in robotics.

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Visualizing the 2d World with Cartograms

Space and time are favorite subjects of mine, since they are the root concepts for two of the most fundamental types of questions we can ask, where and when questions. I discussed three dimensions in detail in a previous post, so I am going to dive into the subject of cartograms and show why you should be careful about your two-dimensional thinking as well. I’ll give you a question to stick behind your ear before I begin: how do tiny island nations like Britain and Japan manage to dramatically influence the world, while huge continents like Africa and South America often don’t even register on the radar? Let me warn you right now, that’s a trick question.

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The 15 Laws of Meeting Power

We humans are simpler in collectives than we are as individuals. We like to think there is a “whole greater than the sum of the parts” dynamic to human collectives, but there really isn’t. The larger the meeting, the dumber it is. If you find a large deliberative body that is acting in ways that are smarter than its size should permit, you can be sure its workings are being subverted by, say, Karl Rove. I’ll argue that larger thesis in a future article, but for now, I’ll just use that element of my personal doctrine to explain why I’ve been fascinated by meetings for years — they are simpler to study, understand and influence than individuals (in particular that most stubborn individual, yourself). When introspection gets to be too tiring, I turn to thinking about groups.

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Harry Potter and the Leaky Genre

In my first article in this Harry Potter series, I took a serious look at the foundations of the idea of magic in general, and its manifestation in the Potter universe in particular. In this second part, I want to ferret out that elusive aspect of the Potter series that makes it a genre-transcending hit. What explains its broad appeal beyond the fantasy genre? My answer is that the Potter universe is fantasy, but it is not genuine escapist fantasy. That is why people who have never heard of Robert Jordan still read J. K. Rowling. In fact, to find even a remotely similar premise in a major narrative, we have to go all the way back to Lewis Carroll. Not to Alice in Wonderland, but to his lesser known masterpiece, Sylvie and Bruno.

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The Third Dimension is Not Simple

Ever since Einstein got us thinking about the fourth dimension and string theorists got us worried about ten and eleven dimensions, we have not really given serious thought to the mundane old third dimension. Several things, ranging from the emerging three-dimensional Internet over at Second Life, to the delightful modern religion of Parkour and the Nintendo Wii controller, have made me think seriously about the third dimension in recent weeks. It isn’t just badly-developed characters in movies and books that are two dimensional — you and I are as well, in fundamental ways.

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Silos and the art of Empirical Theology

In reponse to my attempt to reconstruct the definition of a silo in a value-neutral way, Torp brings up an interesting empirical question about the relative proportions of healthy and unhealthy silos in the “wild,” and how you would add some empirical color to the discussion. It is reasonable to wonder whether any healthy silos actually exist, and ask how you might detect their existence and measure their “health.” I am going to argue here for an answer based on an analogy between macroeconomics and microeconomics that I hope you find surprising.

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