Posts in Category “Book summaries”
Apr 23, 2019
This is the fourth (and last) part of my summary of the book “Religion for atheists”, by Alain de Botton. It’s a book studying the good sides of religion, with the idea of importing/stealing them for the secular world. See the first part, which discusses the most important ideas brought forward by the book, the second part, which discusses the first five chapters, and the third part, which discusses the next three.
This is the fourth post of the summary, and the third discussing the book chapter by chapter. This post will cover the last two chapters: Architecture and Institutions.
Catholicism makes a half touching, half alarming point about the importance of architecture: we are very sensitive to what is around us, so we need to have good architecture in order to grow into, and remain, good people. Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus argued that beauty alludes to, and can remind us about, virtues like love, trust, intelligence, kindness, and justice. Far from being merely unfortunate, ugliness is recategorised as a subset of evil.
In the absence of gods, we still retain ethical beliefs which are in need of being solidified and celebrated, using temples. These wouldn’t have to look all similar (as religious building do), but they could be left up to their individual architects and patrons. Some ideas for secular temples:
- Temple to Perspective: similar to a science museum, possibly with items of palaeontological and geological interest in the walls, and astronomical instruments in the ceilings and roof. However, it wouldn’t pretend to try to give a scientific education. The science would be roughly handled and presented in the interests of stirring awe rather than in the name of promoting knowledge: science for its therapeutic perspective-giving capacity, rather than its factual value.
- Temple to Reflection: in the modern age, our new unparalleled access to information has come at the price of our capacity to concentrate on anything much. This temple would be a simple space, a bench or two, and a vista.
- Temple for the Genius Loci: the Imperial Roman religion not only provided for the worship of cosmopolitan gods like Juno and Mars, but also local deities whose personalities reflected the characters of their native regions. These gods (genii locorum) were given temples of their own and developed reputations and sometimes drew travelers from afar. Like so much else that seems sensible about Roman religion, the tradition was absorbed by Christianity (in the form of saints). Travelling is at the heart of many secular ideas of fulfilment, and there are places that, by virtue of their remoteness, solitude, beauty or cultural richness, retain an ability to salve the wounded parts of us. Travelling could be existential healing, and not merely entertainment or relaxation.
While the secular world uses mostly books to promote ideas, religion employs institutions. Institutions have a much wider-ranging influence than books (Plato argues this then talking about the limits of lone intellectuals in his Republic). Many secular intellectuals suspect institutions for their tolerance to mediocrity. The ideal of the intellectual is a free spirit, disdainful of money, cut off from practical affairs. However, institutions aggregate money, intelligence, and status. They also coalesce the efforts of its members through a shared visual vocabulary. Brands promote consistency, and their enemy is local variation.
A regrettable feature of the modern world is that while some of our most trivial requirements are met by superlatively managed brands, our essential needs are left in the disorganised and unpredictable care of lone actors. And because we’re embodied creatures (sensory as well as rational), we stand to be lastingly influenced by concepts only when they come at us through a variety of channels: what we read and see, but also what we wear, eat, sing, and decorate our houses with.
Religions bring scale, consistency, and outer-directed force to what might otherwise always remain small, random, private moments. Romanticism falsely thinks that it’s better to leave those moment unregulated, for fear of hampering our authenticity. On the contrary, we need institutions to foster and protect those emotions to which we are sincerely inclined but which, without a supporting structure and a system of active reminders, we will be to distracted and undisciplined to make time for.
Auguste Comte’s (failed) attempt at making a “secular religion”. He presented his Religion of Humanity in two books: Summary Exposition of the Universal Religion and Theory of the Future of Man. He thought that capitalism had aggravated people’s competitive, individualistic impulses and distanced them for their communities, traditions, and their sympathies with nature. “Know yourself to improve yourself”.
One of the problems is that, while we’re well disposed to embrace new technology, we like to stick with what we know in social practices like education, relationships, leisure time, ceremonies, and manners. However, many of these solutions have existed for a long time, they have just been ignored by secular minds repelled by religious doctrines.
Many of the problems of the modern soul can be successfully addressed by solutions put forward by religions once these solutions have been dislodged from the supernatural structure in which they were conceived. The wisdom of the faiths belongs to all humankind, and deserves to be selectively reabsorbed by the supernatural’s greatest enemies. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.
And that’s it! Phew, that was a lot of text. I hope you enjoyed it.
Apr 23, 2019
This is the third part of my summary of the book “Religion for atheists”, by Alain de Botton. It’s a book studying the good sides of religion, with the idea of importing/stealing them for the secular world. See the first part, which discusses the most important ideas brought forward by the book, and the second part, which discusses the first five chapters.
This is the third post of the summary, and the second discussing the book chapter by chapter. This post will cover three chapters: Pessimism, Perspective, and Art.
Edit: see the fourth and last post of the summary on this blog.
Christianity emphasises the darker side of earthly existence. Parallel to Blaise Pascal, his exceptionally merciless pessimism, and his Pensées. We should face the desperate facts of our situation head on: “Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched”. It may come as a surprise that reading Pascal is not at all a depressing experience. The Pensées, far more than any saccharine volume touting inner beauty, has the power to coax the suicidal off the ledge of a high parapet. If his pessimism can console us, it may be because we are usually cast into gloom not so much by negativity as by hope: it’s hope that is primarily to blame for angering and embittering us. Hence the relief when we come across something that confirms that our very worst insights are not unique to us, but an inevitable reality of humankind.
The secular age maintains an all but irrational devotion to a narrative of improvement, based on the messianic faith in the three drivers of change: science, technology, and commerce. Material improvements have been so remarkable that it’s hard to remain pessimistic, and thus hard to stay sane and content. We have many material improvements, but our lives are no less subject to accident, frustrated ambition, heartbreak, jealousy, anxiety or death than before. But at least our ancestors had the advantage of living in a religious era which never made the mistake of promising happiness.
Christianity is not in and of itself an unhopeful institution, it merely has the good sense to locate its expectations firmly in the next life. The secular are at this moment much more optimistic than the religious (something of an irony, because the latter are derided by the former for their apparent naivety). The seculars’ longing for perfection is so intense as to lead them to imagine that paradise might be realized after just a few more years of financial growth and medical research. In the same breath it dismisses a belief in angels while sincerely trusting that the combined powers of the IMF, the medical research establishment, Silicon Valley and democratic politics could together cure the ills of mankind.
A pessimistic worldview does not have to entail a life stripped of joy. Pessimists have a greater capacity for appreciation than their opposite numbers, for they never expect things to turn out well. Accepting that existence is inherently frustrating can give us the impetus to say “Thank you” a little more often.
One of the most consoling texts of the Old Testament should be the Book of Job, which has the theme of why bad things happen to good people. It’s not for us to know why events occur in the way they do, and we shouldn’t always interpret pain as punishment. Our problems aren’t the biggest, nor the most important.
Godless societies are at risk of making human beings centres of the stage, because it invites us to think of the present moment as the summit of history. Being put in our place by something larger, older, greater than ourselves is not a humiliation; it should be accepted as a relief from our insanely hopeful ambitions for our lives. Science should matter to us not only because it helps us to control parts of the world, but also because it shows us things that we will never master.
Secular art exposes us to objects of genuine importance, but they seem incapable of adequately linking these to the needs of our souls. We are too often looking at the right pictures through the wrong frames. Being an art “expert” is associated with knowing a great deal: where a work was made, who paid for it, where its artists’ parents came from and what his or her artistic influences may have been. A statuette like “Virgin and Child” was made for people to kneel and draw strength from Mary’s compassion and serenity. Now, in Louvre, we have to understand it. Christianity, by contrast, never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: a medium to remind us about what matters, to guide us to what we should worship and revile if we wish to be sane.
We need art because we’re so forgetful. Many of our ideas gets flattened and overlooked in everyday life, their truth rubbed off through casual use. We know intellectually that we should be forgiving and empathetic, but such adjectives have a tendency to lose all their meaning until we meet with a work of art that grabs us through our senses and won’t let us go until we have property remembered why these qualities matter and how badly society needs them for its balance and its sanity.
Another reason art is needed is that the unsympathetic assessments we make of others are usually the result of nothing more sinister than our habit of looking at them the wrong way, through lenses clouded by distraction, exhaustion and fear, when they’re in reality very similar to us.
Suffering is important in Christianity, and it knows that pain is aggravated by a sense that we are alone in experiencing it. Jesus and Mary represent many of the sufferings people can experience. Maybe we should have contemporary artists depict a Seven Sorrows of Parenthood, a Twelve Sorrows of Adolescence or a Twenty-one Sorrows of Divorce.
In the secular world, we depend on artists to both impress our senses with their technique, and be the originators of profound psychological and moral insights. Maybe that’s too much to ask.
Maybe museums should not order galleries into movements or time, but the concerns of our souls. As they are know, they don’t achieve any real coherence at the emotional level. Museums should be more than just places for displaying beautiful objects: they should use beautiful objects in order to try to make us good and wise.
Apr 23, 2019
This is the second part of my summary of the book “Religion for atheists”, by Alain de Botton. It’s a book studying the good sides of religion, with the idea of importing/stealing them for the secular world. See the first part, which discusses the most important ideas brought forward by the book.
This is the second post of the summary, and the first discussing the book chapter by chapter. This post will cover five chapters: Wisdom without doctrine, Community, Kindness, Education, and Tenderness.
Wisdom without doctrine
The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it’s true. The premise of this book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling. We can recognise that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and haven’t been solved by any secular society: the need to live together in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses; and the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise. The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed.
It’s hard to build community and we are used to mingling with mostly people who are like us. We, as a society, are focused on success and status. We develop a desire to be famous and powerful when being “like everyone else” seems a distressing fate, when the norm is mediocre and depressing. If there are so many references in the Mass to poverty, sadness, failure and loss, it’s because the Church views the ill, the frail of mind, the desperate and the elderly and representing aspects of humanity and of ourselves which we are tempted to deny. But when we acknowledge them it brings us closer to our need for one another. Two ideas to steal:
- The Agape restaurant (too long to summarise here, see p. 43-50), inspired by early Masses, in which people shared a meal.
- Yom Kippur: Jews must review what they have done the previous year, and apologise for their bad actions, however small. Many things that would be too small to bring up again, but that hurt social relationships (things that we cannot quite forget, but that we cannot quite mention, either), would be mentioned and apologised for on this day.
Our obsession with “freedom” makes us hold to an unhelpfully sophisticated view of ourselves in which we are always above hearing well-placed, blunt and simply structured reminders about kindness. We are not. Our lack of freedom is not the problem in most cases, it’s having enough wisdom to know how to exploit our freedom.
The myth of the original sin reminds us of how weak and broken we are, as opposed to the approach of the Enlightenment, which tells us that we are naturally good. The latter is depressing as a frame, because our flaws are evident and make us think that the problem is in ourselves. The former is healthier, because it is more understanding when we inevitably fail, and encourages us to do our best regardless.
Idea to steal: Saints are a great idea to remind us of qualities we should nurture in ourselves, inspiring us to get better. Calendars constantly remind us of them, assigning a date to many. We should have secular “saints” who personify good sides of people we need reminders for.
What we’re taught
Few things secular society believes in as fervently as education. We have an intense faith in it, and there are grand claims implying that colleges are more than mere factories, and that they may turn us into better, wiser and happier people. However, the courses offered only prepare us for successful careers in mercantile, technological societies.
How we’re taught
Again, Christianity sees us as flawed and lost, and their purpose in education is to change our lives. Current universities are on the side of Enlightenment, assuming we’re good, and just focusing on cramming new knowledge in our heads.
We have a perplexing tendency to know what we should do combined with a persistent reluctance actually to do it, whether through weakness or absent-mindedness (what Greeks called Akrasia). There’s much value in reminding us of things “we already know”, as opposed to filling in for lack of knowledge. To do that, we have to focus on excerpts, repetition, and simplification. See John Wesley references on p. 120.
Secular life is not free of calendars, but mostly they’re used for work. We feel, however, that it would be a violation of spontaneity to be presented with rotas for rereading Walt Whitman or Marcus Aurelius. We’re addicted to news and novelty, and we have sacrificed an opportunity to remind ourselves of quieter truths which we know about in theory but forget to live by in practice. We feel guilty for all that we have not yet read, but overlook how much better read we already are than Augustine or Dante: the problem is the manner of absorption rather than the extent of our consumption.
Religions have been radical in taking lesson out of the classroom, encouraging their followers to learn with their senses, through activities (eg. Zen Buddhism’s tea ceremony). We should train our minds as rigorously as our bodies, and we should train our minds through our bodies. Religious retreats, and comparison with hotels and spas from p. 145, ego and meditation notes from p. 155.
Ultimately, the point of education is to save us time and spare us errors. Obvious and inoffensive in science, why so controversial for wisdom? No existing mainstream secular institution has a declared interest in teaching us the art of living. Religion has lots of ideas about this, and frequently those ideas were around before the birth of Jesus. Why not steal those back?
From a rational perspective, devotion to Mary seems infantile. But it’s the wrong framing: the cult of Mary (or Isis in Egypt, Demeter in Greece, Venus in Rome, Guan Yin in China; this is not shared cultural origin, this is universal human need!) speaks to the extent to which the needs of our childhood endure within us. Even if most of the time we can be mature, sometimes we’re hit by helplessness.
Atheism is impatient with neediness, and has attacked religion for being nothing more than a glorified response to childhood longings. This is probably correct, but we need it: many of those needs are not exclusively childish, they’re human. In Christianity, only the proud would deny their weakness.
Idea to steal: it would be useful if secular artists occasionally created works which took parental care as their central theme. They could be put in temples to tenderness.
Apr 23, 2019
This is the first part of my summary of the book “Religion for atheists”, by Alain de Botton. It’s a book studying the good sides of religion, with the idea of importing/stealing them for the secular world. I loved the book, for what it’s worth.
This first post is going to cover the most important ideas in the book. Later posts will cover the book chapter by chapter, more in detail.
Atheists’ relationship to religion
It must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling. The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed.
Why religions exist
We invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and haven’t been solved by any secular society: the need to live together in harmony, despite our selfish and violent impulses; and the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain.
Pain is aggravated by a sense that we are alone in experiencing it. The Church views the ill, the frail of mind, the desperate and the elderly and representing aspects of humanity and of ourselves which we are tempted to deny.
Education and reminders
We have a perplexing tendency to know what we should do combined with a persistent reluctance actually to do it, whether through weakness or absent-mindedness (Akrasia). Thus, there’s much value in education as reminding us of things “we already know”, as opposed to giving us new knowledge.
We hold to an unhelpfully sophisticated view of ourselves if we think that we are always above hearing well-placed, blunt and simply structured reminders.
Institutions have a much wider-ranging influence than books, and can give us a system of active reminders.
Fearing that these reminders are a violation of spontaneity is nonsense. Our lack of freedom is not the problem in most cases, it’s having enough wisdom to know how to exploit our freedom.
Wisdom vs. material improvements
The secular world is afraid of teaching wisdom (as opposed to knowledge), and focuses instead on material improvements. But as good as those are, that doesn’t mean that our lives are less subject to accident, frustrated ambition, heartbreak, jealousy, anxiety or death than before. For example, travelling could be existencial healing (wisdom), not merely entertainment or relaxation (material enjoyment/improvement).
Auguste Comte thought that capitalism had aggravated people’s competitive, individualistic impulses and distanced them for their communities, traditions, and their sympathies with nature.
Conclusion: steal from religions
Many of the problems of the modern soul can be successfully addressed by solutions put forward by religions. The wisdom of the faiths belongs to all humankind and it’s intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.
And that’s it for the main ideas of the book. Later posts will go chapter by chapter, discussing it in more detail.
Feb 24, 2019
This is my summary for “To have or to be?”, the book by Erich Fromm. This summary follows the structure and order of the book, although I have skipped several sections for brevity or because I didn’t find a good way to summarise them.
Meaning of life
Inner liberation, break the chains of greed. Reason only works as long as it’s not stifled by greed. Industrial societies only talk about political liberation and have forgotten about the inner one.
Obstacles to a greater conscience
- Fascination for power and fame, lack of authenticity.
- Trivial chatter. It comes from emptiness, indifference and routine. We have become afraid of intimacy but also of loneliness.
- The idea of life without effort and pain. In theory, modern progress was supposed to give us more free time for higher, more creative tasks. But instead we have idealized absolute laziness and horror to any real effort.
- Fear of authoritarianism and idealization of little whims. Fear of anything imposed on us have resulted in the idealization of total freedom to choose. We end up with freedom for little whims (ie. desires that come spontaneously, without any connection to our personality or our goals), instead of freedom for our will. Our “anti-authoritarianism” (which is good otherwise!) has been used to justify narcissistic complacency.
Ways of conscience
- Wanting a single thing. Set ourselves a goal, and dedicate ourselves to it.
- Be awake and aware. Pay attention to the outside world.
- Be conscious. Truth has a liberating effect, even when we learn about problems that have no solution. This is the most crucial aspect of the art of being. We achieve this personal independence by refusing to submit (not the rebelliousness without a goal). Another important attitude is realising that most of what we hear, and even know, is false: a healthy skepticism.
- Concentration. It’s harder and harder to focus, due to the way we produce and consume, but it’s important to learn to focus if we want to pursue many things. Practising sports, painting, playing musical instruments, and such, can help us concentrate.
- Meditation. Part of the advantage is to be more conscious, and part of it is to connect to our subconscious to make it more explicit and let us inspect it and control it more easily.
Self-analysis as a way of knowing oneself
This chapter is too complex to summarise, but in short it says that psychoanalysis is usually seen, even by professionals, as a way to cure neurosis, but the author sees it also as a good way to know oneself. Starting from an analysis from a professional, one can learn to analyse oneself and apply those principles for the rest of one’s life, to increase self-knowledge over time.
The chapter proposes concrete techniques and strategies to do this.
Two forms of ownership
Functional and non-functional. The first are things that we need or use often, and are connected to our goals; these things encourage activity and vitality. The second are things that we simply collect.
Trying to have only the first kind has several interesting consequences:
- Having only what I use encourages me to be active.
- It’s harder to have greed to have more things, because my capacity to use them productively would be impaired.
- It’s harder to feel envy, because I’m already busy with what I have.
- I won’t be worried about losing what I have, because functional property is easier to replace.
The strategy to live a better life is to beat our narcissism and our egotism. To do so we need conscience, will, practice, and learn to tolerate our fears and new experiences. Instead of thinking “I am what I have”, move towards “I am what I do”.
I realise, when I re-read the summary, that it feels “fluffy” and new-agey, because it lacks the depth of the original text. One of the things that make a difference is the way the author argues and explains each point, eg. it’s not evident from this summary that he rejects schools of thought or groupthink.
Although I didn’t agree with everything on the book, I really enjoyed reading it. I encourage you to read it if the topics and themes sound vaguely interesting, because the book is much better than my summary makes it out to be.
Jan 7, 2017
This is my (partial) summary for the book “Writing Monsters” by Philip Athans. It’s a book with advice and tips for fiction authors on writing effective monsters for your stories. Instead of following the book structure, I’m going to try to summarise a selection of its ideas.
Predictability is the enemy of horror
This is by far the most important idea in the book, and many of the tips stem from this principle. I have marked in italics everything connected to this.
What is a monster?
Uniquely strange creature that we instinctively fear. A distortion in appearance, behaviour or thought. Characteristics:
Monsters have a disturbing capacity for violence.
They are amoral and beyond our control: cannot negotiate with them, don’t seek or respect our opinion.
They turn us into prey, sometimes isolating us and/or taking our weapons.
Note that shape, appearance (hideous to beautiful) and size (giant to microscopic) don’t matter!
A strange, terrifying creature might not be a monster once its behaviour is understood.
Uses of monsters
Villains: Monsters don’t have to be villains, and villains don’t have to be monsters. If a character is both, build the villain facet first.
As transformation: We’re afraid of what we can’t control, including ourselves and other people (werewolves, Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, etc). Our psychological well-being is as important as the physical, maybe more, because otherwise we’re expelled from society and civilisation.
As “natural disasters”: They bring the best and worst in people. Useful to explore honesty, loyalty, vanity, etc., not just good/bad.
As obstacles: Simply what stands between the protagonists and some goal. Note that “defeating” a monster might mean understanding it, helping/rescuing it, or sending it home.
Defining Your Monster
When defining your monster, define its offence (why it’s dangerous), defence (why it’s hard to get rid of it) and utility (features that gives it “colour”, like Blair Witch Project making stick figures and putting victims in a corner). Make rules for it, even if they’re never fully explained to the reader. You can use a monster form as a reference.
Archetypes like vampires, zombies, dragons, etc., are useful, but you need to define your own twist to them, see eg. 30 days of night and 28 days later. Otherwise, they’re unoriginal and, worst of all, predictable.
Describing Your Monster
Show, don’t tell! Describe the visceral experiences of the protagonists/victims (eg. use of “shuddering” instead of “being afraid” in Lovecraft’s Dagon excerpt on p. 142), the monster’s effects on people, and its possible intentions. Not knowing what the monster is, or not seeing it, is effective.
Think of all the senses. Limiting one, or all but one, can be effective. We don’t have to be turned away by appearance, smell, etc: sometimes predators use good smell to attract prey.
Revealing Your Monster
Monsters should be revealed in three stages:
Initial contact: Announces there is something. It’s fast (uses few words) and dramatic.
Build-up: Reveals aspects of it, takes the most space: increasing the threat, leaves reader wondering where does it stop. Reveal no more than necessary (our imagination makes them scarier), use “red shirts” (side characters who die) to show the danger.
Final encounter: Play with expectations and wait as long as possible to show the monster. Don’t actually show the monster until the end.
There’s much more to the book than what I’ve written here: I just included the parts that were more interesting for me personally. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed with the book: it seemed messy, some of the ideas and examples I didn’t find enlightening or useful, and some ideas were repeated several times (didn’t feel like reinforcement, just messy writing/structuring). Maybe I had too high expectations.
That said, the book was interesting and useful, at least for a n00b like me. So I recommend it, just not wholeheartedly.
Dec 12, 2016
This is my summary of the book “2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love” by Rachel Aaron. It’s a very short e-book (also available as audio book) with tips for writers. It’s only $0.99 so definitely worth the money and the time if you’re looking for some writing advice and tips.
The book is divided in two parts: the daily process and the background work that allows for efficient writing. The second part is somewhat more subjective and personal and might not apply equally well for everybody.
Part one: Process
Many (competent, even!) writers equate writing quickly with being a hack. The author obviously doesn’t agree, and thinks that the secret of her method is that is removes dead times and waits. The method is based on three requirements. Improving any of the three is a win, but all three is the best.
Knowledge: The most important of all three. Know what you’re writing before you do it. No macro plot stuff, but exchanges in an argument or very rough descriptions. Five minutes is about enough to cover all the writing for a day.
Time: Record your word output per session for a while and figure out patterns. Do you write better/more when you write for at least two or three hours? At home? At the coffee shop? Without internet? In the morning or evening? Once you figure it out, try to make all of your writing sessions be like that.
Enthusiasm: Write stuff that keeps you enthusiastic. If you didn’t enjoy writing it, it’s likely that readers won’t have fun reading it. When planning the writing for the day, try to play the scenes in your head. If there’s any scene that you are not excited about, change it or drop it. Similarly, if you struggle to write one day, reflect on what you’re writing and figure out if you need to change anything. The process should be enjoyable.
Part two: Tips for Plotting, Characters, Editing
Plotting in 5 steps
To decide which book to write, choose an idea from the pool if ideas you have in your notebook, blog, or wherever. Signs to tell if an idea is worth the time/effort required for a novel: you cannot stop thinking about it; it writes itself (related to the previous point); you can see the finished product; and you can easily explain why others would want to read it.
Get Down What You Already Know. Characters, situations, magical systems, settings. Scrivener mentioned as the best thing ever.
The Basics. Start filling out the gaps from the first step, enough to figure out the bare bones of characters (main characters, antagonists and power players), plot (end and beginning, in that order, plus twists, scenes and climaxes you already know of; also the kind of story this will be), and setting (magic system if applicable, basic political system, general feel of places: technology level, culture, power).
Filling In The Holes. You already have the plot beginning, some interesting middle points, and the end. Tips for when you get stuck in page 28. This step is finished when you can write the whole plot, start to finish, without skipped scenes.
Building a Firm Foundation. Make a time line, draw a map, write out who knows what and when, memorise everyone’s particulars, write out a scene list, do a word count estimation, and do a boredom check (go through the whole plot: if some scene is hard to visualise or feels slow, figure out why).
Start Writing! Remember that no matter how carefully you have plotted, the story and/or characters will probably change dramatically.
Characters Who Write Their Own Stories
Characters with agency (that can make decisions that change the direction of the plot) write their own stories. They will help getting from a point in the plot to the next. Examples in pages 36 and 37. Basic character sheet consists of name, age, physical description, what they like, what they hate, and what they want more than anything. It’s filled during step 2 above. The rest of the character development happens as the novel is written, like a braid: this gives easier and better results.
The Story Architect
Most stories follow a three-act structure (Act I, put your characters in a tree; Act II, light the tree on fire; Act III, get your characters out of the tree). Act II is normally the longest. Act III is the climax, the big event. It has a lot of tension, and it shouldn’t be too long because the tension will fade. Don’t forget the resolution at the end: readers need a closure for the characters, enjoy their victory. Does not mean having to end the book happily: the point is tension relief.
The Two Bird Minimum
Scenes should do three things: advance the story, reveal new information and pull the reader forward. Sometimes combining several scenes into one can be interesting and add tension, plus makes the story leaner.
Editing for People Who Hate Editing
Many people dread editing and think they cannot do it, but it’s just a skill that can be improved. Tips on approach:
Change the Way You Think about Editing. The final destination of editing is reader experience: polishing the text so it doesn’t just contain the story, but it’s nice to read, too.
Editing Tools. Three tools to identify the problems the text has: updated scene map (tip: mark types of scenes, like love, main plot, and secondary plot, and make sure their distribution throughout the next is not too uneven), time line (includes important things other characters were doing “off screen”; helps find timing problems, when action too loose or tight, lagging tension, etc), and the to-do list (list of problems you have found).
Actually Editing. Take the to-do list and start fixing. Always biggest/hairiest problems first, never first page to last. Then do a read-through, making a new to-do list (typos and small things can be fixed on the spot), and possibly more read-throughs if the to-do list was big. Finally, read one more time, but from the reader’s POV (tip: use a reading device, not the computer used to write the manuscript). At this point you can involve other people, never before. Remember that involving other people means more rounds of editing. At least three more rounds is normal.
Here you have a pretty compact summary of the book, mostly useful for reference and to get a sense of what the book covers. Note that I skipped the chapter with advice for new writers and some other minor stuff, though. If you like this, go support the author (seriously, it’s just one dollah).
Aug 21, 2014
The only way we can solve the problem of information obesity is to change the economics of information (the information that is the worst for us is the easiest/cheapest to obtain), because they have changed in a way that not only stupid people are getting duped anymore. We need to demand an end to factory-farmed content, and demonstrate a willingness to pay for content like investigative journalism and a strong, independent public press.
Ideas: share this book; organize in infogroups; focus and be civil, keeping focus on the goal of improving digital literacy; meet face to face; learn, eg. from the reports by Knight Comission; act, producing useful outcomes in your local communities, including children.
The participation gap is the gap between people and the mechanics of power in their governments. Its cause is our desire to focus on large, emotionally resonant issues over practical problems that can be solved. Related to this is the “sportsification” of politics, which makes us treat elections like athletic rivalries, vilifying the other team at the expense of doing what’s right.
The first cause is scale: the underlying structures of government aren’t designed to handle our present population. Transparency is overrated as solution to this, plus it has disadvantages like allowing dishonest people to appear honest. Two big lessons about this: (1) there’s a gigantic gap between the skills to win an election and the skills to govern a country, and (2) many of the nonprofits and advocacy groups are more interested in staying relevant than solving problems (as a result, these advocacy groups tend to focus on larger problems that can go unsolved for years; also, after working for one such group, the author assures that online petitions are not meant, primarily, to cause change, but to get your email address so that you can later be bombarded by emails asking for money).
Start sweating the small stuff at the expense of some of the big stuff. If you’re interested in making government more accountable, work on making it so that the government’s listening tools and policies are modernized. Every issue has hundreds of small, nonpolitical, operational problems. Fixing these can have a huge impact compared to combating a vague foreverwar.
Special note: Dear Programmer
Programmers: take your role in society seriously. Dedicate some portion of your time to issues you care about. You needn’t ask for permission to do this, or wait for a nonprofit or advocacy group to ask you donate your time (and while it’s useful to partner with organizations, it’s likely that they’re more interested in your skills to help them fundraise than they are to solve problems). This isn’t a call for you to build apps for your favourite nonprofit, because unless you’re willing to support and maintain each application, and help constantly ensure its usage and adoption, you’re wasting your time.
And this is it. As for my review of the book, I got to say I was a bit disappointed by it. It was much more focused on American politics than I expected, which sometimes made it hard to relate to. There are definitely many interesting parts in this book, and a fair amount of food for thought, but some of the advice feels pretty demanding: it feels like it’s enough to keep certain things in mind and make certain changes without really measuring everything objectively (I have the impression that the author has a much bigger faith than me in numbers, measurement and “objectivity”). In summary, good book, but not as universal or life-changing for me as I had hoped.
Aug 18, 2014
This is the second part of my summary of “The Information Diet” by Clay Johnson (you can also read the first part). This part covers part II: The Information Diet.
EDIT: the third and final part is finally published.
The Information Diet
First of all: fasting is not dieting. It’s good to disconnect, but unplugging is just a way to avoid our bad habits. Second: the diet is based on the author’s experience, and is not backed by science. Third: it’s a list of recommendations, and every person has to find what works for them. Summary: Consume deliberately. Information over affirmation.
The author coins the term infovegan, a person that consumes consciously. This requires knowing where to get appropriate data and what to do with it. Check the ingredients of “processed information” (when reading news on a new medicare proposal, take a look at the bill itself). It’s also a moral choice: opting out of a system that’s at least morally questionable, shunning factory farmed information, politically charged affirmations, and choosing to support organizations providing information consumers with source-level information and containing more truth than point-of-view.
Our concept of literacy changes with every major IT shift. Now, filtering and sorting through all the available information is very valuable. Proposal for a modern data literacy:
Know how to search: not just Google and Bing, but specific engines for patents, scientific papers, laws, budgets (eg. USASpending.gov), etc.
Know how to filter and process: need to find the most reliable and accurate information sources, and learn how to process them with tools like spreadsheets, or else we’re unable to draw accurate conclusions.
Know how to produce: knowing how to publish information (text, audio or video) and the ability to take feedback are both critical skills.
Know how to synthesize: we must be able to synthesize the ideas and concepts of others back into our ideas.
First of all, figure out how much information you’re consuming daily (the average is 11 hours). A long-term goal could be to reduce that to 6, turning the rest into information production, social time with friends, exercising, etc. Things to avoid:
Mass affirmation: avoid the suppliers that make a living telling you how right you are. Eg. no more than 30 minutes a day of mass affirmation. For liberals, that’d mean choosing between Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.
Overprocessed information: consume locally or try to remove distance to the things that you investigate.
Advertisements: the economics of advertisement-based media results in sensationalism. We have to reward our honest, nutritious content providers with financial success.
Our own fanaticism: keep an eye on your own fanaticism and challenge your beliefs. Keep a list of stuff you find to be absolute, like firm positions and values, and look to find data and people that challenge your biases, prescribing yourself enough time to encounter them.
And this is the end of the second part of my summary. The next one will be the last, covering Part III: Social Obesity.
Aug 17, 2014
This is the first part of my summary of “The Information Diet” by Clay Johnson, which I got through the O’Reilly Reader Reviews program. The book is about the information we consume, and by drawing parallels to food diets, come up with ways to be consume information in a more concious and healthier way. The book is very focused on American politics, but can be applied to other topics. This part of the summary only covers the first third of the book, the introduction.
As we’re hard wired to love salt, sugars, and fats, we’re also hard wired to love affirmation and the confirmation of our beliefs. Food companies learned to sell a lot of cheap calories, by packing them with salt, fat, and sugar. And media companies learned that affirmation sells a lot better than information. Driven by profits, they produce information as cheaply as possible. As a result, they provide affirmation and sensationalism over balanced information.
When viewed through the health lens, the information abundance problem appears to be a matter of health and survival. The first step is realizing that there is a choice involved.
The media is using technology to figure out what it is that people want, and finding the fastest way to give it to them. Eg. Huffington Post shows two headlines during the first 5 minutes and keeps the one that got more clicks, and AOL’s policy says that each editor should use four factors to decide what to cover: traffic potential, revenue potential, turn-around time, and lastly, editorial quality. All editorial content staff are expected to write 5 to 10 stories per day.
“Information obesity” is what makes people not know basic facts or believe falsehoods. This doesn’t stem from a lack of information, but from a new kind of ignorance that results in the selection and consumption of information that is demonstrably wrong. We don’t trust “the news” but we do trust “our news”. Tobacco companies have figured out that “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public”. Information obesity has three flavors:
Agnotology: manufactured ignorance and culturally induced doubt, particularly through the production of seemingly factual data. The more informed someone is, the more hardened their beliefs become, whether or not they’re right.
Epistemic closure: dismissal of any information that doesn’t come from a network of interconnected and cross promoting media because it comes from “the other side”, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted (how do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!).
Filter failure: The friends we choose and the places we go all give us a new kind of bubble within which to consume information.
The next part will cover “Part II: The Information Diet”.
Jan 24, 2014
These are my notes for “Coding Freedom”, a sociology/anthropology book that analyses the free software community. You can download it for free from its website, or buy a paper version. These notes cover only the history of free software, which I found very interesting even if I basically knew it already.
1970-1984: The commodification of software
During the 1960s and part of the 1970s, most hardware was sold with software and there was no software patent or copyright protection. Programmers in university labs routinely read and modified the computer source code of software produced by others.
In 1976, just as companies began to assert copyrights over software, Gates wrote a letter to a group of hobbyists chastising them for, as he saw it, stealing his software: they had freely distributed copies of Gates’ BASIC interpreter at one of their meetings.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s the US software industries dominated internationally. Amid fears of losing ground to foreigners, US legislators launched an aggressive campaign to develop and fund the high-tech and knowledge economic sector and encountered little friction when accepting software patents in 1980.
1984-1991: Hacking and its discontents
In the late 1970s and the 1980s, corporations started to deny university-based hackers access to the source code to their corporate software, even if the hackers only intended to use it for personal or noncommercial use. This infuriated Richard Stallman, who became a “revenge programmer” (whole, fascinating story in p.68) and ultimately founded the Free Software Foundation in 1985 and then wrote the first draft of the General Public License in 1989. In 1984 he actually said “I am the last survivor of a dead culture. And I don’t really belong in the world anymore. And in some ways I feel like I ought to be dead”.
1991-1998: Silent Revolutions
Trade groups intensified their efforts to change intellectual property law largely through international treaties. They worked with law enforcement to strike against “pirates”, pursued civil court remedies against copyright infringers, launched moral education campaigns about the evils of piracy, and pushed aggressively for the inclusion of intellectual property provisions in the multilateral trade treaties of the 1990s. For example, through TRIPS, patents had to ultimately be open to all technological fields.
In the meantime, Linux would gain momentum in companies: managers would say they were not using Linux, but techies would say “yes… but don’t tell my boss”.
1998-2004: Triumph of open source and ominous DMCA
The term “open source” (less philosophical and more technical) was created and won, and the DMCA was passed, which criminalised all attempts to circumvent access control measures (ie. DRM), practically giving copyright owners technological control over digitized copyright material.
Misc final notes
For most developers, acceptance of free software rarely led to political opposition producers of proprietary software, but made them develop a critical eye toward practices such as abuse of intellectual property law and tendency to hide problems from costumers: “Free software encourages active participation. Coporate software encourages consumption”.
One of the most profound political effects of free software has been to weaken the hegemonic status of intellectual property law; copyright and patents now have company.
And that’s it. I hope you enjoy it. Go download the book if it sounds interesting or you want to learn more about hacker culture and free software.
Feb 2, 2013
Laying out the comic
Once the script is ready, you sketch the comic storyboard to answers these questions:
Composition of each panel (where characters go). See example on p.108. Tips: rule of thirds, writing speech bubbles first to use space better, avoid intersecting lines in foreground and background.
Perspective (how the audience will look at the characters). Use and be aware of perspective and distance (where the camera is). For inspiration, have a look at Wally Wood’s “22 panels that always work”.
Flow & progression (change of locations, how time passes, …). What happens between panels should be obvious. Take care of small details like which hand is used, or the side of something.
Drawing and refining
Resources to make higher-quality art, faster:
Reference materials: tracing over stuff is easy, quick and gives good results (eg. photographs, incl. made by yourself for the purpose, or avatar generators like IMVU or XBox).
Templates: a couple available on the net, but tend to be limiting. Create your own templates?
Comic creation software: several, seem too complex and/or expensive.
Possible uses of comics:
Requirements/vision: documents don’t get read, and if they do, they’re ambiguous. Comics are easy to read and explaining requirements through real use-cases often works better.
Good start for projects/companies: comics help you validate your ideas before you build anything, or decide exactly what to build. In these cases, make the person read the comic on her own, then explain with her own words as she reads again. That way, misunderstandings are easier to spot. Also, make people say how it relates to them: if they or someone they know would use it.
Marketing materials. Explaining your product, or why it’s special, through comics.
Certain kinds of documentation.
It’s generally easier to get people to read comics than to read text descriptions of the same content.
Breaking Down the Barriers
When convincing bosses to approve the use of comics, there’s usually less resistance than what people think. That said, understand who you’re convincing and what arguments to use (eg. some designers think that comics take relatively little time compared to alternatives, or the evidence suggesting that words + pictures help in understanding and memory). Fidelity and polish in comics (and any other medium) needs to be higher for certain audiences, eg. bosses or corporate clients.
Useful templates and references
The appendix has ideas about how to show someone in front of a computer, interesting panels, gesture dictionary and a facial expression dictionary:
Jan 31, 2013
Oh, boy. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? This is the first post of the year, and it will be about the first book I’ve finished, “See What I Mean” by Kevin Cheng (which, by the way, I got from O’Reilly’s Blogger Review Program). It’s a book about using comics “for work”, to communicate ideas like product concepts, user stories, and such, more effectively.
This post will cover about half the book, from chapters 2 to 5. These notes are much more useful if you have the book to refer to the pictures, but hey, this is mostly for me ;-)
Properties of comics
Basic vocabulary for the anatomy of comics:
Properties of comics:
Communication: comics don’t need words, or can express a lot without them (p. 23). They’re universal!
Imagination: characters with few features make more readers relate. This can be applied to UI mockups/sketches, too: people focus less on design if it’s abstract (p. 25,26).
Expression: give interpretation to words (“I’m sorry”/”Thank you” examples with different facial expressions on p.27). When combining text and pictures, the sum is bigger than the parts.
Time: comics can express time passing by using empty or repeated panels. Also, via words in “narration” and reference objects (like burning candles, clocks, or day/night).
Drawing faces is easy! Eyebrows and mouth go a long way to express mood. Body language helps quite a bit, too, and it’s easy to represent. See examples of combinations of eyebrows and mouths on p.47, 48. In faces, eyes go in the middle, and dividing the bottom half in three gives bottom of nose and mouth. Also see http://www.howtodrawit.com for tips on how to draw different things.
Approx. proportions for a person are two heads for torso, 1 for hips/groin, and 3 for the legs. Body language basic guidelines: leaning forward shows interest, concentration or anger (depends on arm position and context; curling the spine works, too); arm position can tell a lot (lifting one or both, on chin, in front of body); head positions don’t change much, but facial expressions or where the person is looking, does. When drawing body language, try to imagine the situation and exaggerate it. It often helps to start with a stick figure, then add detail.
Steps to create a comic
There’s no single correct way to create a comic. One possible approach:
What’s your comic about? Why you’re using comics, what to include, who’s the product and comic for. This chapter is about this step.
Writing the story: create scripts in words, an outline, define characters, setting and dialogue.
Laying out the comic: plan each panel, what to show and how much of it.
Drawing/refining the comic.
What’s your comic about?
Don’t approach the question broadly and vaguely, break it down! Define goals (what to accomplish), length (3-8 panels encouraged; should fit on site homepage, a postcard or e-mail; if longer, consider physical prints), audience (expertise level, context), and representative use case (help your readers understand why they should care).
Writing the story
When writing a script, you can use a similar format as that of film scripts. Each panel’s needs four primary elements:
Setting (defined up front, usually in bold). It can be time of day, location, or maybe what happens in the background. It depends heavily on the audience. The first panel can help with the setting (“establishing shot”). There are different graphical ways to convey a setting: the description of it describes a concrete way (eg. exterior of coffee shop vs. interior of coffee shop vs. close-up of coffee cup being served).
Characters (all caps, bold). There are several types: target audience, people who interfact with them, and objects/locations that play a significant role (eg. the solution). Target audience is typically based on personas, go make them if you don’t have them already.
Dialogue (regular font). It’s defined by more than the text itself: fonts, sizes, colours, bubble shapes or the split into different bubbles are very important, too! The text can be hard to get right: make it fit the character, keep it realistic (avoid marketing jargon and overly enthusiastic conversation). Captions can communicate time, setting, action, and even dialogue, but don’t add unnecessary information in them, and always try to speak from the character’s voice.
Actions (usually italics). It’s what characters do, depicted in the panel art.
How to tell a story: remove all unnecessary. You can combine several points in a single panel. Show, don’t tell. See examples on p.98-100.
And that’s it for today. In a few days I’ll publish the rest of the summary.
Apr 9, 2012
This is my summary of the book “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. Contrary to what the title may suggest, it’s not a “vegetarian book” defending some variant of the argument “animals are cute, don’t kill them”: it’s a book about factory farming (it’s true that one of the conclusions is that you essentially have to go vegetarian to avoid factory farming meat, but this book is for anyone interested in how food is produced). Sadly I had to skip many interesting stories and data in order to give the summary some continuity.
Edit: corrected statement “total collapse of all fished species in 50-100 years” to read “we have depleted large predatory fish communities worldwide by at least 90% over the past 50–100 years” (the article it linked had the second statement, not the first; although it does say “We conclude that today’s management decisions will determine whether we will enjoy biologically diverse, economically profitable fish communities 20 or 50 years from now, or whether we will have to look back on a history of collapse and extinction that was not reversed in time”). I think the original statement is true, but I couldn’t find a reference for it.
Factory farming (and industrial fishing) is a mindset: reducing production costs to the absolute minimum, ignoring or “externalising” costs such as environmental degradation, human disease or animal suffering. Nature becomes an obstacle to overcome.
Factory farming possibly accounts for more than 99% of all animals used for meat, milk or eggs. As for industrial fishing, we have depleted large predatory fish communities worldwide by at least 90% over the past 50–100 years (see also Sylvia Earle’s TED talk, not mentioned in the book but related). It doesn’t help that the so-called “bycatch” is actually much more than the actual fish: typically 80% to 90% (and up to around 98%), which is tossed back (dead) into the ocean.
There is scientific consensus that new viruses, which move between animals and humans, will be a major global threat into the foreseeable future. According to the WHO the “World is ill-prepared for ‘inevitable’ flu pandemic”. The factory farm conditions encourage diseases in animals (some of them virtually unknown outside of factory farming), that end up in the actual food in the supermarkets. It’s even worse considering the animals are constantly fed with antibiotics (livestock gets almost 6 times more antibiotics than humans… if you trust the industry’s own numbers!), making the resulting diseases much harder to fight off for humans. The whole chapter 5 is filled with descriptions of filthy, dangerous and disgusting practices that are absolutely common and normal in (US, at least) factory farming.
Factory farming animal shit is a big problem both because of the quantity and for being so poorly managed: it kills wildlife and pollutes air, water, and land in ways devastating to human health. Its polluting strength is 160 times greater than municipal sewage, and yet there’s almost no waste-treatment infrastructure for farmed animals. Ignoring these problems are part of why factory farming is so “efficient”. The problem, of course, is not the shit in itself but the desire to eat so much meat and pay very little for it.
Simply put, someone who eats factory farmed animals regularly can’t call herself an environmentalist.
It takes 6 to 26 calories fed to an animal to produce 1 calorie of animal flesh (the vast majority of the food produced in the US is fed to animals). The UN special envoy of food called using 100 million tons of grain and corn a “crime against humanity”, but what about animal agriculture, which uses more than 700 million tons of grain and corn per year, much more than enough to feed the 1.4 billion humans in poverty?
The FAO/UN summarised in “livestock’s long shadow — environmental issues and options” (which has been criticised BTW!):
The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Livestock's contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale [...]
Factory farmer perspective
Some interesting comments from a factory farmer (note that I don’t find them convincing, but there are some good points that need to be explained or considered when proposing alternatives to factory farming):
In fact, we have a tremendous system. Is it perfect? No. [...] And if you find someone who tells you he has a perfect way to feed billions and billions of people, well, you should take a careful look. [...] If we go away from it, it may improve the welfare of the animal, it may even be better for the environment, but I don't want to go back to [...] starving people. [...] Sure, you could say that people should just eat less meat, but I've got news for you: people don't want to eat less meat. [...] What I hate is when consumers act as if farmers want these things, when it's consumers who tell farmers what to grow. They've wanted cheap food. We've grown it. [...] It's efficient and that means it's more sustainable.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves about the number of ethical eating options. There isn’t enough nonfactory pork in the US to serve New York City. Any ethical-meat advocate who is serious is going to be eating a lot of vegetarian fare.
Ending factory farming will help prevent deforestation, curb global warming, reduce pollution, save oil reserves, lessen the burden on rural America, decrease human rights abuses, improve public health, and help eliminate the most systematic animal abuse in world history.
A good number of people seem to be tempted to continue supporting factory farms while also buying meat outside that system when it is available. [...] Any plan that involves funnelling money to the factory farm won't end factory farming [...] If anyone find in this book encouragement to buy some meat from alternative sources while buying factory farm meat as well, they have found something that isn't here.
I can't count the number of times that upon telling someone I am vegetarian, he or she responded by pointing out an inconsistency in my lifestyle or trying to find a flaw in an argument I never made (I have often felt that my vegetarianism matters more to such people than it does to me).
Virtually all of us agree that it matters how we treat animals and the environment, and yet few of us give much thought to our most important relationship to [them]. Odder still, those who _do_ choose to act in accordance to these uncontroversial values by refusing to eat animals [...] are often considered marginal or even radical.
It might sound naive to suggest that whether you order a chicken patty or a veggie burger is a profoundly important decision. Then again, it certainly would have sounded fantastic if in the 1950s you were told that where you sat in a restaurant or on a bus could begin to uproot racism.
We can't plead ignorance, only indifference [...] We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, _What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?_
It shouldn't be the consumer's responsibility to figure out what's cruel and what's kind, what's environmentally destructive and what's sustainable. Cruel and destructive food products should be illegal. We don't need the option of buying children's toys made with lead paint, or aerosols with chlorofluorocarbons, or medicines with unlabelled side effects. And we don't need the option of buying factory-farmed animals.
Mar 8, 2012
This is my summary of the book “Living with Complexity”, by Donald A. Norman (of “The Design of Everyday Things” fame, among others). It’s a book about how it’s wrong to consider complexity (in design) a bad thing. I have skipped a fair deal of the text in the summary, mostly because it wasn’t applicable to my job. I have also reorganised the content a lot.
Complexity in itself is neither good nor bad, it’s confusion that is bad. Good design can help taming complexity, not by making things less complex, but by managing the complexity. There are two keys to cope with complexity: design that show its underlying logic to make it understandable, and our own skills and understanding of that logic. People need to take the time to learn, understand, and practice, because systems that deal with complex activities will not be immediately understandable, no matter how well they’re designed.
The misguided cry for simplicity
The argument between simplicity and features is misguided: people want more capabilities and more ease of use, but not necessarily more features or more simplicity. What people want is understandable devices. It’s not even a trade-off between simplicity and complexity because (a) simplicity is not the goal, and (b) you don’t have to give up something in order to have more simplicity.
We seek rich and satisfying lives, which goes along with complexity. Too simple and it’s dull; too complex and it’s confusing. This happens in every subject (also music, movies, etc). The problem is when complexity is arbitrary and unnecessary.
What makes something simple or complex is the conceptual model of the person using it: many activities we think of “intuitive” now, like swim or ride a bike, have taken us years to learn and master. We can often use something by following instructions, without having a good conceptual model. But then we run into problems, and we complain that it’s too complicated. Comparisons with tools like hammers are wrong, because (1) even if the tool is simple, mastering its usage actually takes a long time; and (2) users of those tools typically need many of them, and each one has to be mastered separately.
On anti-social machines
Machines are often anti-social when things go wrong: they become unresponsive and unhelpful, like bureaucracies. The problem is that the designer typically focuses on correct behaviour (ie. not a lot of work on error conditions). This is worse when systems are designed by engineers who view things from their logical point of view, feel people “get in the way” (the “foolproof” systems syndrome).
We try to add intelligence to machines, but what they need (and this is seldom considered) is communication skills, etiquette and communication. We often need to change our goals in the middle of an operation, or want to substitute or skip some steps, or do them in a different order, or are interrupted and have to finish a task at a later point. Most systems don’t allow this. Isolated, context-free intelligent tools can’t be sociable.
System thinking (considering the entire process as a human-centred design) is the secret to success in services. This is part of what has made Apple so successful: (1) design cohesive systems, not isolated products; (2) recognising that a system is only as good as the weakest link, and (3) design for the total experience.
Desire lines (like messy trails besides the designed paths in the real world) can often teach us something about what people want and how the design might have gone wrong. Neglect of usage patterns can turn simple, attractive items into complicated, ugly ones, and also turn simple components into a complicated combination when they are put together. Everyday life is often complex not because of a single complex activity, but because of many simple activities with different requirements or idiosyncrasies.
Waiting lines have been studied from the efficiency point of view. But what about the experience? Principles to improve the latter:
Provide a conceptual model (perhaps the most important principle): uncertainty is an important cause of emotional irritation; people need assurance when they have problems.
Make the wait seem appropriate: people should know why they wait, and agree that it’s reasonable.
Meet of exceed expectations: always overestimate waiting time.
Keep people occupied: it’s psychological time, not physical, that is important. Give people things to do, keep lines moving and make them appear short.
Be fair: emotion is heavily influenced by perceived causal agents.
End strong, start strong: in order of importance, the end, start, and middle are the most important to take care of.
The memory of the whole event is more important than the details of what happened. When there are positive and negative components, it’s best to: finish strong, segment the pleasure but combine the pain, and getting bad experiences out of the way early.
Principles to manage complexity
Note that this list is heavily edited compared to the book.
Make things understandable. Good conceptual models have to be communicated effectively. Jurg Nievergelt and J. Weydert argued for the importance of three knowledge states: sites, modes and trails, which can be translated into three needs, namely knowledge of the past (knowing how we got into the present state; many systems erase the past so we may not know how we got there), present (knowing the current state, how are we regarding starting point and goals, and what actions are possible now) and future (knowing what to expect).
Avoid error messages. They indicate the system is confused, not the user. Don’t scold her. Good design means never have to tell the user “that was wrong”.
Structure. Divide the task into manageable modules that are easy to learn, or find a different way to frame the problem so it’s less complicated.
Automation. Many tasks can be simplified by automating them, but this only helps if it’s reliable: when there are errors, it can be more complex to switch back and forth between automated and manual than to not have any automation at all.
Nudges and defaults. Sometimes forcing functions (constraints that prevent unwanted behaviour) are too strong, all is needed is a gentle nudge. Defaults are an effective way to simplify the interaction with the world, and a strong tool to drive people’s behaviour.
Learning aids. Instruction manuals are rarely read. When people use a new service or system, they have a goal, they’re not going to read the instructions first. Most people want “just in time” learning and learn better when they need to. The best explanations are in context and show how the task is done (short video demonstrations work well).
And that’s it. Hope you enjoyed it.
Jan 11, 2012
This is my summary of “Designing with the Mind in Mind” by Jeff Johnson, a book about user interface design that explores the reasons why those principles work.
How valuable are UI design guidelines depends on who applies them. They often describe goals, not actions, so they can’t be followed like a recipe. They also often conflict with each other. This book tries to give rationale to make them easier to apply.
Structure: Gestalt principles (proximity, similarity, continuity, closure, symmetry, figure/ground, common fate), see on p. 11-22. They act together, and sometimes they produce effects we don’t want: review designs with each of these principles in mind to see if they suggest a relationship that shouldn’t be there.
Text: we’re wired for language, but not for reading. Typical text-related mistakes: geek-speak, tiny fonts (if the text is hard to read, it probably won’t be read, so you might as well remove it), burying important information in repetition, and using just too much text (use just enough to help most users get to their intended goals).
Colour: our vision is optimised to detect contrasts (edges), and our ability to distinguish colours depends on how they are presented (colours are harder to distinguish if they’re pale, in small/thin patches or separated from each other). Guidelines for colour: (1) distinguish by saturation/brightness, not only hue, (2) use distinctive colours (red, green, yellow, blue, black and white), (3) avoid colour pairs that colour-blinds can’t distinguish (tips on p.59-60, including http://www.vischeck.com/), (4) don’t rely on colour alone, and (5) don’t place strong opponent colours next to each other (see p. 62).
Peripheral vision: we only have good resolution in the centre of wherever we’re looking. Peripheral vision (1-2 centimetres from peripheral vision) mostly only provides cues for our eye movement (good example of bad error message, based on this, on p. 71). To make an error message visible: (1) put it where users are looking, (2) mark it (often it’s enough placing it next to what it refers to), (3) use an error symbol/icon, and (4) reserve red for errors. Heavy artillery (use with care!): (1) pop-ups, (2) sound (makes users scan the screen for errors; make sure they can hear it!), (3) motion or blinking (but not for more than a quarter- or half-second).
Visual hints: use pictures where possible to convey function (quicker to recognise; memorable icons hint at their meaning, are distinguishable from others and consistently mean the same even across applications); thumbnails depict full-sized images effectively if they keep features; use visual cues to let users recognise where they are (distinctive visual style, colours, etc).
Our perception is biased by our experience, current context and goals. Implications: (1) test your design to make sure different users interpret it in the same way; (2) be consistent with position, colours and font for elements that serve the same function; and (3) understand your users’ goals (they can be different, too!) and make sure you support them by making relevant information clearly visible at every stage.
We’re much better at recognising than at remembering (“see and choose” is easier than “recall and type”). Tips: (1) avoid modes, or if you can’t, show the current mode clearly; (2) show search terms when showing search results (they’re easy to forget if we get interrupted for whatever reason); (3) when showing instructions for a multi-step process, make sure the instructions are there while following the steps.
Attention and goals
When people focus their attention on their tools, it is pulled away from the details of the task. Software applications should not call attention to themselves. Short-term memory and attention are very limited, so don’t rely on them. Instead indicate what users have done versus what they have not yet done, and/or allow users to mark or move objects to indicate which ones they have worked on versus the rest.
Support people’s goal-execute-evaluate cycle: provide clear paths, including initial steps, for the goal; software concepts should be focused on the task rather than implementation, for the execution; provide feedback and status information to show users their progress towards their goal, and allow users to back out of tasks that didn’t take them toward their goal, for evaluation.
While pursuing a goal, people only notice things that seem related to it, and take familiar paths whenever possible rather than exploring new ones, esp. when working under deadlines. After they’re done, they often forget cleanup steps: design software so that users don’t need to remember, or at least to remind them.
Don’t expect users to deduce information, tell them explicitly what they need to know.
Don’t make users diagnose system problems. They don’t have the skills.
Minimise the number and complexity of settings. People are really bad at optimising combinations of settings.
Let people use perception rather than calculation, when possible (some problems, when presented graphically, allow people to achieve their goals with quick perceptual estimates instead of calculations).
Make the system familiar (concepts, terminology, graphics), by following industry standards, by making the software work like an older application the user know, or by basing the design on metaphors.
Let the computer do the math, don’t make people calculate things the computer can calculate for them.
We learn faster when operation and vocabulary is task-focused, and when risk is low:
Task-focused operation: you have to understand the users’ goals in order to reduce the gap between what the user wants and the operations supported by the tool is called “the gulf of execution”. To understand goals: perform a task analysis (checklist on p. 135) and design a task-focused conceptual model (the list of objects/actions analysis the user should know about). The second should be as simple as possible (ie. less concepts), avoid overlapping concepts, and not have things “just in case”. Only then sketch and design a user interface, based strictly on the task analysis.
Task-focused vocabulary: it should be familiar and consistent (“same name, same thing; different name, different thing”), mapped 1:1 to the concepts.
Low risk: often people are afraid of being “burned” and don’t learn or explore. People make mistakes, so systems should try to prevent errors where possible, make errors easy to detect by showing users what they have done, and allow users to undo/reverse easily.
Responsiveness is not the same as performance, it can’t be fixed by having faster machines/software. Principles:
Let you know immediately your input was received
Provide some indication of how long operations will take
Free you to do other things while waiting
Manage queued events intelligently
Perform housekeeping and low-priority tasks in the background
Anticipate your most common requests
When showing progress indicators (always an operation takes longer than a few seconds): show work remaining; total progress, not progress on the current step; start percentages at 1%, not 0% (and display 100% only briefly at the end); show smooth, linear progress, not erratic bursts; use human-scale precision, not computer precision (“about 4 minutes” better than “240 seconds”).
Display important information first. Don’t wait to have all the information to show everything at once.
Dec 7, 2011
This is my summary of “Bodies”, by Susie Orbach. It’s a book about the relationship to our body and how it affects us and our life. As this book is sort of similar to “Who are we” in the sense that there are several general points being made and most of the book are stories supporting or explaining those points, I’m not writing my notes about each chapter separately but doing a more “proper” summary. I’ve also written a mini-review below.
There has never been a “natural” body: bodies have always been the expression of a specific period, geography, sexual, religious and cultural place. However, today only a few aspirational and idealised body types are taking the place of all possible bodies. We’re losing body variety as fast as we’re losing languages. Again like with languages, there’s a critical period for “body acquisition”. We can feel alienated of our own body (for the rest of our lives) if we don’t learn to feel comfortable with it in that critical period.
The individual is now deemed accountable for his/her body and judged by it, turning “looking after oneself” into a moral value. A search for contentment around the body is a hallmark of our times, and a belief in both the perfectible body and the notion that we should accede to improve it has contributed to a progressively unstable body.
The body is becoming akin to a worthy personal object. Body transformation is today less of a social ritual, and more wanting to produce an acceptable body (wounded soldiers vs. TV contestants on p. 84-85). We seem to believe that almost anything about the body can be changed by the individual, turning plastic surgery into a consumer item: a treat, like a holiday. Sexuality has to be conjured and performed, it doesn’t exist or flow naturally.
The new grammar of visual culture, which is not even real (Photoshop), produces that even children photos are “enhanced”, generating frustration and even making people lose accurate records of their visual history (very interesting notes on p. 87-90). We fall into the trap of us “enjoying fashion and beauty”, believing we’re agents instead of victims, but we aren’t being creative with our bodies or having fun with them: we feel at fault for not matching up to the current, impossible to reach imagery. We take for granted that looking good for ourselves is going to make us feel good, find faults in our bodies and say that it makes us feel better, more in control, to improve them.
I generally liked the book, but sometimes I thought it was a bit too long. Many of the important points are already made in the introduction, and the rest of the chapters are more stories and references supporting the initial points. Worse yet, I sometimes found those arguments or stories not completely believable or convincing (eg. using controversial material like some Harry Harlow experiments or Victor of Aveyron’s story to support her points). In other cases, some relatively bold claims were not backed up by references, which made me feel could be not representative or poorly-researched or, at least, made them weaker because of a lack of context.
However, the book is well written and made me reconsider several things, which is what books like this should do. Recommended if you’re interested in psychology or if you find it intriguing to learn about our relationship to our physical bodies. Although I skipped them in the summary, some of the stories (like the man who didn’t want to have legs) are pretty mind-blowing and interesting in themselves.
Nov 10, 2011
These are my notes about “Envisioning information” by Edward R. Tufte. It’s not a normal summary because most of the content needs the graphics, plots and figures being discussed. The following notes cover the whole book (six chapters).
EDIT: Manuela wrote another, easier to read summary.
The methods in this book work to increase the number of dimensions that can be represented on plane surfaces and the data density. Nearly every escape from flatland demands an extensive compromise, trading off one virtue against another. Even our language often lacks capacity to communicate a sense of dimensional complexity. Some design strategies are found again and again (examples of over 380 years of sunspot data analysis). These design strategies are surprisingly widespread, albeit little appreciated, and occur independently of the content of the data.
Massive Java railroad line example on p. 24-25. The train diagonals cleverly multiple-function, recording six variables at once (p. 26). Example of criminal activity for a trial on p. 30-31. The chart invites reading both horizontally and vertically. The eyes detect curious patterns, which make these displays persuasive and memorable. Visual displays of information encourage a diversity of individual viewer styles and rates of editing, personalising, reasoning and understanding. Unlike speech, visual displays are simultaneously a wideband and a perceiver-controllable channel.
We envision information to reason about, communicate, document and preserve that knowledge. Chartjunk on p.34: data-thin, uncontextual graphs. Its promoters imagine numbers to be dull and tedious, requiring ornament. If numbers are boring, you got the wrong numbers. The audience might be busy or eager to get on with it, but not stupid. Chartjunk looks more like a poster, meant to be looked at from a distance (thin data density).
Detail cumulates in coherent structures. Simplicity of reading derives from the context of detailed and complex information, properly arranged. To clarify, add detail. Stem-and-leaf plots of statistical analysis also rely on micro/macro design (examples on p. 46-47).
We thrive in information-thick worlds because of our marvellous and everyday capacities to select, edit, single out, structure, highlight, group, … Visual displays rich with data are not only an appropriate and proper complement to human capabilities, but also such designs are frequently optimal. If the visual task is contrast, comparison and choice, then the more relevant information within eyespan, the better. Low-density requires visual memory, a weak skill. High density also allows viewers to select, narrate, recast and personalise data for their own uses.
What about information overload? The question misses the point. Clutter and confusion are failures of design, not attributes of information. Interesting quote on typography on p. 51. The deepest reason for displays that portray complexity and intricacy is that the worlds we seek to understand are complex and intricate.
Layering and separation
This technique is one the most powerful devices for reducing noise and enriching the content of displays. The various elements interact, creating non-information patterns and texture simply through their combined presence (1 + 1 = 3 or more). Colour effortlessly differentiates between annotation and annotated (example on p. 54). What matters is the proper relationship among information layers (example of old + improved design on p. 54-55). For tables, try to do without rules altogether, only use when absolutely necessary. Example of map (good and bad) on p. 58. Example of (non-)dull background on p. 59. Notes on how 1 + 1 = 3 can also be applied to noise on p. 61-62. Example of use of colours (another bad + good design) on p. 63.
Information consists of differences that make a difference. A fruitful method for the enforcement of such differences is using layering and separation.
Quantitative reasoning is based on “compared to what?”. Small multiples answer by visually enforcing comparisons of changes, of the differences among objects, and the scope of alternatives. Information slices are positioned within the eyespan, so that viewers make comparisons at a glance. Example of drawing a Kana character on p. 69. Simultaneous two-dimensional indexing of the multiplied image, flatland within flatland, significantly deepens displays with little added complication in reading.
Colour and information
Example of Swiss mountain map on p. 80. Fundamental uses of colour in information design: label (colour as noun), measure (as quantity), represent or imitate reality (representation), enliven or decorate (beauty). Principles to minimise colour damage: (1) pure, bright colours have loud, unbearable effects when they stand unrelieved over large areas adjacent to each other, but can work very well when used sparingly on or between dull background tones; (2) placing of light, bright colours mixed with white next to each other usually produces unpleasant results, esp. if the colours are used for large areas; (3) large area background or base-colours should do their work most quietly, allowing the smaller, bright areas to stand out most vividly (strongly muted colours, mixed with grey, provide the best background for the coloured theme).
What palette of colours should we choose to represent and illuminate information? Use colours in nature (familiar and coherent, possessing a widely accepted harmony to the human eye), esp. those on the lighter side such as blues, yellows, and greys of sky and shadow. Great examples on p. 90.
In the ocean map, quantities are shown by a value scale, progressing from light to dark blue. Colour rainbows confuse viewers to mumbling colour names and the numbers they represent (“To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees”). Colours are sensitive to context. In the ocean map, contours (which are very helpful) are labelled with depth measurements. Edge lines allow very fine value distinctions, increasing scale precision. Example of bad map/good colour on maps on p. 94-95.
Narratives of space and time
Example of bad/good train schedule on p. 104-105. Space-time grids have a natural universality, with nearly boundless subtleties and extensions. Great, assorted examples on p. 110-111. Example of “tale of two cities” on p. 112-113.
I’m aware that this summary is not very useful if you can’t see the different diagrams being examined, but it’s partly for myself :-) Anyway, if you like the ideas in the book, go buy it, it’s a great book in a big format, with really nice paper and full of very interesting examples of both good and bad information design.
Oct 13, 2011
This is the third and last part of my summary of Pragmatic Thinking & Learning, by Andy Hunt. See parts one and two on this same blog. This part will cover chapters “Gain experience”, “Manage Focus” and “Beyond Expertise”.
Your brain is made to learn by exploring and building mental models on your own, not by receiving information passively (see amazing footage of tennis teacher in Alan Kay’s Doing with Images Makes Symbols, starting on 55:30). In real life there’s no curriculum, you’ll make mistakes and it will get messy: the kind of feedback you need. We learn by “playing”, but that doesn’t mean easy or non-business-like. Papert students called it “fun” because it was hard, not in spite of.
Leveraging existing knowledge helps learning new skills: we can often find similarities, literal or metaphorical, with existing skills. However, careful not to stick with the similarity. Fully embrace the new skill’s unique characteristics.
Failures are valuable because they can lead to study and understand what went wrong and how to fix it. They are critical to success, but only when well-managed. A good environment for good failures needs freedom to experiment (few problems have a single solution; prototype more than one solution to a problem), ability to backtrack to a stable state, reproduce any work product as of any time (source control, and the ability to run those versions of the program), ability to demonstrate progress (get comparable feedback between versions). Version control, unit testing and automation give this environment. A supporting environment can make or break learning for anyone.
Tip: to raise awareness when some code fails without apparent reason, try to imagine what the code should look like, then compare it to the real thing.
Time pressure actively shuts things down. Your vision narrows, and R-mode doesn’t get the chance to work at all.
When not doing anything, the L-mode will produce incessant mental chatter, which interferes with R-mode processing. Meditation helps controlling the L-mode “monkey voice”.
When meditating you don’t want trance, falling asleep, or “contemplate the big mystery”, but to sink into a relaxed awareness of yourself and your environment without judgement or making responses. Meditation exercise suggestion: find a quiet spot; sit in a comfortable, alert position with a straight back (become aware of any tension and fix it); close you eyes and focus your awareness on your breath; be aware of the rhythm (don’t try to change it, just be aware); keep your mind focused on your breath (do not use words or start a conversation with yourself); when you start thinking about some topic or having a conversation with yourself, let the thoughts go and get the focus back on the breath. Even if you mind is wandering often, the exercise of bringing yourself back is useful.
You have to let your thoughts “marinate” to get the best results. Different people have different methods to marinate (sitting around doing nothing, humming, eating a crunchy snack, making paper dolls…). Thinking about at least three solutions to a problem gives you the confidence that you have thought “enough” about it. Then, you can let those ideas marinate and come up with the best solution.
Develop your exocortex (mental memory or processing outside your physical brain: book collection, notes, favourite IDE, etc).
Deliberate switching to e-mail/IM. Close what you’re working on, take a deep breath, then switch.
Have a way to note things quickly when they come up, without losing the flow or what you were doing (wiki/scratchpad inside you IDE or whatever).
When stuck or bored, doodle on a piece of paper, or go for a walk (without talking to anyone). That helps against checking the internet or e-mail.
Don’t answer IM right away, put up a sign (“don’t disturb”) during a debugging session or similar, or close the door if you have one. When you do get interrupted, try to save your mental state before you lose it.
Get two monitors (same size and brand) to keep the whole context at sight. Organise virtual desktops by task (communications/distractions, writing, coding/checking documentation, surfing), not by kind of application (browsers, editors, terminals).
In summary: learn to quiet your chattering L-mode, deliberately work with and add to thoughts in progress, and be aware of how expensive context switching can be.
Change is harder than it looks, old habits don’t go away easily. Don’t be hard on yourself, just correct it and go back to the right path. Suggestions to make effective change:
Start with a plan. Keep track of what you have accomplished, it’s probably more than you think.
Inaction is the enemy, not error. The danger is not doing things wrong, is not doing anything.
New habits take time. Expect at least three weeks, maybe more.
Belief is real. If you think you’ll fail, you will.
Take small, next steps. Keep your big goal in mind, but don’t try to spell out all steps you need to get there.
Possible first steps (complete list on p. 247-248, this is just two highlights): (1) pick two things that’ll help you maintain context and avoid interruption, do them right away; (2) open your mind to aesthetics and additional sensory information (your cubicle, desktop, code: how “pleasing” is it?).
You don’t want to become a “niche expert”: approach learning without preconceived notions, prior judgement or a fixed viewpoint; be aware of your own reaction to new technology and ideas; be aware of yourself and the context. The biggest reason any of us fail is the autopilot.
And this is the end. I hope you liked it.
Oct 12, 2011
This is the second part of my summary of Andy Hunt’s “Pragmatic Thinking & Learning”. See the first part on this blog. This part will cover chapters ”Get in Your Right Mind”, “Debug Your Mind” and ‘‘Learn Deliberately”.
Get in Your Right Mind
A good way to involve your brain more is to use more senses than usual. For tactile you can use building blocks like Lego, CRC cards, etc. Example of “role-playing” a software design on p. 77. The advantage of using the R-mode is not that it’s a panacea, it’s simply to use the other half of your brain too (reference to pair programming). Story of the climbing teacher on p. 81: the importance of feeling something first (R-mode) before learning it’s theory (L-mode), because it gives you the context to understand the theory and explanations better. Learning can be impeded by trying to memorise facts when you don’t grasp the whole yet. When creating, be comfortable with the absurd and impractical; when learning, get “used to it” before learning and memorising. Using metaphors can open up creativity because they communicate the R-mode and the L-mode (wordnet can help when creating metaphors).
Tip: the “morning pages” technique (p. 98). Write them first thing in the morning (before coffee, shower or anything else); write at least three pages by hand, without computer; do not censor what you write; do not skip a day. Blogging is also a good exercise (what you think about a topic, what you can defend publicly).
Tip: learn martial arts or yoga to improve concentration (p. 103). Tip: break small, daily routines (turn off the autopilot).
Forcing the brain to reconcile unlike patterns broadens the scope of material under consideration (see Zen koans and Greek oracles on p. 107). Reference to oblique strategies (has electronic versions, including an Android version!).
Debug Your Mind
We make decisions and solve problems based on faulty memory and our emotional state of the time, ignoring crucial facts, etc. Some cognitive biases: anchoring (ref: experiment with numbers and prices in predictably irrational), fundamental attribution error (other people behave based on their personality, we have excuses for our own behaviour; in reality, behaviour is often caused by the context), self-serving bias (“it’s my success”, but “it’s not my failure”; you’re always part of the system), need for closure (naturally uncomfortable with uncertainty; have to learn to live with it), confirmation bias, exposure effect (prefer familiar things), Hawthorne effect (people change when they’re being watched, but after a while they go back to how they were behaving), false memory (easy to confuse imagined events with real memories; every memory read is a write in light of the current context), symbolic reduction fallacy (L-mode is anxious to “symbol-away” complexity), nominal fallacy (thinking that labelling a thing means you understand it).
How to fight biases: understand that “rarely” doesn’t mean “never”, defer closure (you know the most about a project at the end of it, so don’t take decisions too early, be comfortable with uncertainty), remember that you don’t remember well. People are mainly a product of their environment and of the times. Explanation of different American generations on p. 125-131. In summary, generational archetypes are prophet (vision, values), nomad (liberty, survival, honor), hero (community, affluence) and artist (pluralism, expertise, due process). Realise where your thinking is coming from, what are your influences, and what kind of arguments you make. Try to have a diverse team so biases can catch/cancel each other. Myers Briggs Type Indicator discussion on p. 133-135. Trust intuition, but verify. If you think you have defined something, try to define the opposite.
A single intense, out-of-context classroom event can only get you started in the right direction. You need continued goals, feedback to understand your progress and approach it far more deliberately than a once-a-year course.
For any goal (desired state, usually short-term) you have in mind you need a plan, a series of objectives (steps towards that goal). Objectives should be Specific (“learn Erlang” vs. “be able to write a web server in Erlang that dynamically generates content”), Measurable (how do you know when you’re done? related to “specific”. You don’t have to see where you’re going, just a couple of meters ahead of you), Achievable (from the current state!), Relevant (does it matter to you? is it under your control?) and Time-boxed (perhaps the most important: the deadline).
Create Pragmatic Investment Plans (PIP) to learn whatever you want to learn. Major point involving managing the plan:
Have a concrete plan: devise different levels of goals (now, next year, next five years).
Diversify: make an effort to choose different methodologies, languages, industries, and non-technical stuff.
Active investment: need to be able to evaluate your plan and realistically judge how’s going. Adapt/change the plan based on that.
Invest regularly: you need to make a commitment to invest a minimum of time on a regular basis. Create a ritual, if needed.
Other techniques, like mind maps, talk to the duck and learning by teaching are mentioned in this chapter, but I’m skipping them in the summary.
And this is the end of the second part of my summary. The next one will cover the rest of the book, namely chapters “Gain experience”, “Manage Focus” and “Beyond Expertise”.
EDIT: read the third part of this summary.
Oct 11, 2011
This is the first part of my summary of “Pragmatic Thinking & Learning”, by Andy Hunt. It’s a book about how the brain works and how to take more advantage of it. It explores many interesting topics, like learning, focusing, the brain modes of operation, etc. Do note that I’ll skip many techniques/lessons in the summary, sometimes because they were less interesting for me (as in, I didn’t think they would work for me), sometimes because I already practise them. This first part will cover the introduction (in PDF), and chapters ”Journey from Novice to Expert” (in PDF) and “This is Your Brain”.
Despite advances in programming languages, techniques, methodologies, …, the defect density has remained fairly constant. Maybe we’re focusing on the wrong things: software is created in your head.
You don’t get taught, you have to learn. Everything is connected, there’s nothing in isolation, so sometimes small things can have unexpectedly larger effects.
Journey from Novice to Expert
The novice needs clear, context-free rules to operate, but an expert is ineffective when constrained by those same rules. Experts don’t just “know more” than novices, they experience fundamental differences in how they perceive the world, approach problem solving, etc. The stages of learning in the Dreyfus model are:
Novices. Have little or no previous experience in this skill area (“experience” results in a change of thinking; doing the same for years doesn’t count!). They don’t particularly want to learn, want to accomplish an immediate goal, don’t know how to respond to mistakes and are fairly vulnerable to confusion when things go awry (example of doing taxes for years on p. 20).
Advanced Beginners. Can start to break from the fixed rule set a little bit. Can try tasks on their own but have trouble troubleshooting. They want information fast (eg. API reference) and can start using advice in the correct context, but don’t have a holistic understanding and really don’t want it yet.
Competent. Can develop mental models and work with them effectively, troubleshoot problems on their own, and begin to figure out how to solve novel problems, as well as seek and take advice from experts. They’re typically described as “having initiative” or “resourceful” and tend to be in a leadership role in the team (formal or not). They’re great to have on your team because they can mentor the novices while not annoying the experts.
Proficient. Need the big picture, and thus will seek out and try to understand the larger conceptual framework around the skill. They’re frustrated by simplified information. This is the first level that can correct previous poor performance and revise their approach. They can also learn from the experience of others, which comes with the ability to understand and apply maxims.
Experts. Primary sources of knowledge and information in any field, continually looking for better methods and better ways of doing things. Statistically, there aren’t many: probably around 1-5%. Experts work on intuition, not reason. They may be completely inarticulate as to how they arrived at a conclusion. They aren’t perfect though, and have the same cognitive biases as everyone else. They’re also likely to disagree with one another.
Most people, for most skills, never get past the second stage. Plus, practitioners at a lower skill level have a marked tendency to overestimate their own abilities. Note that you want a mix of skills on a team. See “10 years to expertise” on p. 32. The dangers of overreliance on formal models (I’m skipping some in this list!):
Confusing the model with reality. It’s easy to confuse the two, but they aren’t the same.
Devaluing traits that cannot be formalised. Good problem-solving skills are critical to our jobs, but problem solving is a very hard thing to formalise.
Legislating behaviour that contradicts individual autonomy. You want thinking, responsible developers. Don’t reward herd behaviour.
Alienating experienced practitioners in favour of novices. Targeting your methodology to novices, you create a poor working environment for the more experienced.
Oversimplification of complex situations. Every project/situation is more complex than that.
Demand for excessive conformity. What worked great in your last project might be a disaster in the next one.
Insensitivity to contextual nuances. Formal methods are geared to the typical, not the particular. But when does the “typical” ever happen?
Mystification. Speech becomes so sloganised that it becomes trivial and loses meaning (eg. “we’re a customer-focused organisation”).
This is your brain
You have two “CPUs”: the linear, logical thought and language processing CPU (“L-mode”, for “linear”; the “left part of the brain”); and the searching and pattern matching CPU (The “R-mode”, for “rich”; the “right part of the brain”). They share the same bus so they can’t function at the same time.
R-mode can search “asynchronously” and come up with the response (possibly days) later. It doesn’t do any verbal processing, so the results are not verbal either (eg. trying to describe dreams). Also, it’s not under our direct concious control: as it can give answers anytime, we have to be ready to write down anything that comes up (related: everyone has good ideas, but far fewer track them; of those, even fewer bother to act on those ideas, and even fewer of those have the resources to make a good idea a success). It is very concrete, relating things as they are; it makes analogies and doesn’t require reason or known facts to process input. It’s holistic and wants to see the whole thing at once, perceiving overall patterns and structures. It’s intuitive, making leaps of insight, based on incomplete patterns, hunches, feelings or visual images. It’s very useful for software design.
Synthesis can be good for learning, see “Don’t Dissect the Frog, Build It” on p. 62. Aesthetics also make a difference, see p. 66-67. The brain is wonderfully plastic. There’s no limit to the number of skills you can learn, as long as you believe it (ie. what you think about your brain capabilities physically affects the “wiring” of the brain itself).
And that’s all for now. The next part will cover chapters ”Get in Your Right Mind” and “Debug Your Mind”.
EDIT: read the second part of this summary.
Sep 4, 2011
This is the second half of my summary for the book “Prototyping” by Todd Zaki Warfel. See the first part on this blog. It will cover chapters 4-12, which talk about the guiding principles for prototyping, prototyping tools and how to test your prototype.
Most prototyping mistakes come from either (1) building too much or too little, (2) prototyping the wrong thing or (3) not setting expectations about what the prototype will be. Principles:
Understand your audience and intent. This is the most important principle. Once you understand them, you’ll be much better equipped to determine what you need to prototype, set appropriate expectations, determine the right level of fidelity and pick the right tool.
Plan a little, prototype the rest. Software systems change constantly and quickly. Plan a little and prototype the rest, so you can cope with the changing environment by working incrementally and iteratively.
Set expectations. This lets you avoid rabbit-hole discussions on things that aren’t important or haven’t been prototyped yet.
You can sketch. Anyone can draw well enough for the purposes of a prototype.
It’s a prototype, not the Mona Lisa. Don’t lose too much time on making it pretty. Not only it’s not necessary, but it has some advantages like making it clear that it’s not finished product, which makes people more likely to give feedback. You need the least amount of effort to communicate your design idea, nothing more.
If you can’t make it, fake it. You can fake many things you can’t make with JPG files, clickable HTML files, PDFs or PowerPoint presentations.
Prototype only what you need. Often prototypes only cover part of a system. Even if your ultimate goal is usability testing, chances are you’ll only test 5 or 6 scenarios, so you only need to build that.
Reduce risk—prototype early and often. Prototyping is about making small investments with a significant return. The return can be positive, in which case you can just go ahead, or negative, in which case your risk is substantially reduced because you identified the problem soon enough. The earlier you catch mistakes, the easier and cheaper it is to fix them.
When choosing the prototyping tool, consider audience, intent, familiarity/learnability, cost, need for collaboration, distribution and throwaway vs. reusable. Notes for specific tools follow:
It’s the most versatile method. It’s also fast, cheap, easy, you can manipulate it on the fly (and even the participants can help), collaborative, not limited by prebuilt widgets or technology, and can be done anywhere and anytime, even without computers. The bad sides are that it’s hard for geographically distributed teams to use it, requires imagination and lacks visual aesthetics. Tips:
Include transparencies (useful for simulating roll-overs and such), post-it notes (for displaying changing states on the page, highlighting elements or dialog windows), coloured pens/markers (sketching in black/blue, errors in red, success messages in green) and scotch tape or glue stick in your kit.
Use pre-drawn/printed widgets. The book resources include a (kind of limited) sample Illustrator file with printable widgets for that purpose.
You can use transparencies for context, pop-up help (even using a marker to highlight fields).
To accomplish a show/hide effect, you can fold/unfold part of the paper.
You can simulate slide effects by having two different pieces of paper, cut one of them so the other fits (leaving a sort of “window” so you can see the other through), and moving the second one back and forth.
It has a low learning curve, it’s available in most computers, you can use master slides to ensure consistency, you can copy-paste and rearrange elements with drag-and-drop, and export to HTML or PDF if necessary. However, it has limited drawing tools (so often not good for hi-fi prototypes), the interactivity is limited and the prototype has no reusable source code whatsoever. The book resources have a sample prototyping kit for Powerpoint and Keynote, and Manuela Hutter (Oslo UX book club organiser) wrote another prototyping kit for OpenOffice.org (and see the whole blog post about prototyping with OO.o). Tip: you can simulate fade effects in presentation software by having two slides (one with the element highlighted, the other without) and setting a “dissolve” transition effects between them.
There are several ways to approach making prototypes with HTML. You can simply slap up a few images and use image maps to link to each other, you can have HTML exported from some other tool, or you can write “production-level” HTML for a prototype that will contain potentially reusable code. The strengths of the last way are being platform-independent, free, portable, “real” (in case we’re prototyping a web app), it helps gauging feasibility, modular (helps in productivity), collaborative (if we split in different files), reusable code and unlimited potential. The downsides are that it might take more time and effort to make a prototype like this, and that it’s not easy to make annotations on it.
Testing your prototype
Usability testing is a process, not an event. There’s also planning, analysis and reporting, not just “sitting in front of a person with a computer”.
Poor planning. The first question to ask is “why am I doing usability testing?”. Determine who you want to test, who is going to use the product or service, what are their behaviours, and why would they use the product in the first place.
Not recruiting the right participants. The whole point of the testing is seeing how the design works in the eyes of the people who will use it. If you recruit the wrong people, you will get the wrong data.
Poorly-formed research questions. This is one of the biggest challenges. You have to get your answers without asking explicitly. Instead of telling them to plan a dinner + movie, you can ask them to look for something to do with friends. The point being we shouldn’t make them use the application in the way we want, but make them use the application in whatever way they normally would.
Poor test moderation. A good moderator balances being a silent fly on the wall, watching, with asking enough questions to get the test going; know how to extract just the right level of detail; know when to let the participant explore, and when to pull them back; how to get the answer to the question they want without asking it.
Picking the wrong method to communicate findings and recommendations. Nobody is going to read a 10-20 page report. Short presentations with a summary of the findings typically work well. Including video clips showing the highlights of the test is useful.
Steps to conduct a usability test
Preparation. Decide, with your team, what are the key characteristics and behaviour you’re looking for, and also the ones you don’t want. If you’re going to record audio or video, have a waiver ready for the participants. Knowing the intent of the test will inform the appropriate scenarios, research questions and prototype. Limit the test to 45-60 minutes: enough time to test 5 or 6 scenarios while not exceeding the attention span of the participants.
Design test scenarios. Either specific to determine if a user can access a concrete feature of the site, or exploratory to gain insight into a participant’s overall approach to solving her goal. Focus on the goal, allowing different activities and process to reach it.
Test the prototype. Getting feedback from participants is easier if they feel comfortable. Once they’re comfortable, ask them about their experiences related to whatever you’re going to test that day. You can use that information to provide context.
Record observations and feedback. Have one person moderating, and another person taking notes remotely. It’s better to over-record than to under-record. Use a rating scale of, say, 1-5 for each scenario. Both moderator and participant fill it in. The former should be based of measurable elements like time and effort. The latter is more subjective, focused on the satisfaction with completing the task. Try to filter any variable not related to the system you’re testing. For example, use the same operating system as the user is most used to.
Analyse and determine next steps. When you finish, you typically have a list of bigger issues in your head. This list is a starting point. Analyse all your data points, and find themes. Look for frequency, severity and learnability. It’s better to use a method that combines significance to the customer, value to the business and technical feasibility of fixing the issue.
And that’s the end of my summary.
Sep 3, 2011
This is the first half of my summary for the book “Prototyping” by Todd Zaki Warfel. See my review of the book in Goodreads (one-sentence summary of the review: “a tad disappointing”). It will cover the first three chapters, “The Value of Prototyping”, “The Prototyping Process” and “Five Types of Prototypes”. The second half will cover the guiding principles for prototyping, tools and how to test your prototype.
EDIT: see also the second part.
Value of prototyping
A prototype is a representative model or simulation of the final system, which goes beyond show & tell and let you experience the design: if a picture is worth 1,000 words, a prototype is worth 10,000. As the complexity of a system increases, the cost-to-benefit ratio of prototyping increases dramatically. Some technical requirements can’t be captured in a prototype, but a short and simple supplemental document can cover them. Also, it often takes less effort to produce a prototype than to create a detailed specification document + annotated wireframes. Disadvantages of specification documents:
Nobody wants to read a 60-200 page document.
If you can’t get them to read it, you won’t get them to fully understand it.
It hides the big picture.
Words leave too much room for interpretation.
They don’t encourage play (which prototypes do), which makes people understand the system better.
[There are some notes about experiences with prototypes, which I didn’t find that convincing. In summary, prototypes are much better and cost less effort to make than (lengthy) documents, at least for the initial understanding of the system before it’s built. —Esteban]
It’s commonplace in architecture and industrial design, why not in software engineering? Process in a nutshell is (1) Sketching, (2) Presentation and Critique, (3) Modelling/prototyping and (4) Testing. Sketching is present through the whole process.
The goal is generating many different concepts and put them on some tangible format. The point is not fleshing out the ideas fully, we’ll refine later. It’s a good idea to limit the sketching time to, say, 10-30 minutes. [Unfortunately, there are many things that aren’t clear to me after reading this part: who is part of the sketching process? Is it a meeting? Is there anyone looking while someone else sketches? If so, who? How many people sketch, and many many sketches do we produce concurrently?__ —Esteban]
Presentation and critique
The goal is to find the best ideas. This step if focused on quality, and it’s arguably the most important step in the prototyping process. You present the strengths of your sketch, and your peers highlight the parts that need more work or clarification. Guidelines:
Keep it short: around three minutes for presentation and two for critique.
Focus presentations on the strongest parts: If you need more than three minutes to present your sketch, there’s probably something wrong with it.
Critiques mention both good and bad sides: mention two or three things that are good, and one or two to improve.
Take notes: it’s best to take the notes on the sketch itself.
After the last step, you’re left with the strongest concepts. These are the ones you’re going to prototype. Always consider the following: (1) use a tool/medium you’re comfortable with; (2) make sure you have the ability to communicate effectively with the audience or consumer; (3) consider how much time you have; (4) consider the level of fidelity you need. Once you have a prototype, run the presentation and critique again, but with longer times. Tip: if you project your prototype on a whiteboard, you can take notes on that whiteboard easily.
Testing can be done in two different ways: with clients and with end-customers. When testing with clients, run a presentation and critique for 1.5-3 hours, but instead of making a list of revisions, simply sketch the changes. This makes everyone walk away from the meeting being on the same page. At the end of the session, the client gets a copy of the prototype to play with. After two or three days they typically come back with some more feedback.
Testing with end-customers it a standard usability test, with 8-12 participants, 5-6 scenarios, audio-video capture, analysis and reporting of the results afterwards.
Types of prototypes
[I don’t even know why this chapter is called “types of”. They feel more like “uses of” to me —Esteban]
Shared communication. _Get a designer and a developer to sketch ideas together. Benefits: it opens the line of communication between developers and designers, it teaches them how to communicate with one another, and it builds relationships. It’s a great team-building exercise. _Tip: record a video of yourself using the prototype.
_Working through a design. _If you are going to make a big redesign, you need to test it first, explore the different possibilities, work through them, test them and refine them.
Selling your idea internally. Prototypes work as a tool to sell the feasibility and value of your idea.
Usability testing. A prototype allows you make usability tests and do data-driven decisions.
Gauging technical feasibility and value. Simulations are good to get both managements and engineering to buy into concepts and prove if it can be built.
And this is the end of the first half of my summary. I’ll post the second half soon.
Aug 25, 2011
This is my summary of the book “Who are we — and should it matter in the 21st century”, by Gary Younge, about identity and nationalism in a globalised world. This time, instead of following the structure of the book, I’m going to do something similar to what Josh Kaufman does with his summaries: extract the most important ideas from the book. I think it’s especially appropriate in this case because most of the book is stories that support the author’s theories. After the ideas there’s a selection of quotes taken from the book. I hope you like it.
The notion that identity is a refugee for the poor and dispossessed is misguided. The most chained to identity are often the powerful, because they have the most to lose. They don’t just call it “identity”, they call it “tradition”, “heritage”, or simply “history”. See example of girl whose parents would be disappointed if she married someone from another race or religion (p. 30), and “Just assume everybody is gay” theory on p. 38.
Everybody has an identity, but the more power it carries the less likely they’re aware of it. Those that have never been asked “how to you balance childcare and work?” are less likely to think that their masculinity is anything but the normal state of affairs. Because their identity is never interrogated, they’re likely to think they don’t have one. Finally, power seems to have many parents, but the brutality it takes to acquire it is an orphan (those who will claim they didn’t have anything to do with slavery will proudly attach themselves to events at which they were not present and hail achievements to which they contributed nothing).
Every identity has gatekeepers, official or not. They decide who belongs and who doesn’t by ignoring the complexity and enforce the archetype, on what basis and to what end. Official gatekeepers hold great power, for with certain pieces of paper come certain rights. The demanded threshold for entry (which keeps on changing according to the political, social and economic demands of the time, even as they insist they’re authenticating a timeless truth) is typically higher than the norm for those inside. Example of official gatekeepers for the “Jewish” identity, and the difference between Jewish for the Estate, and Jewish for the rabbis, on p. 98.
Identities change over the years, because they’re rooted in people’s lives and aspirations. Occasionally, a single event, such as a terrorist attack, a riot, election, murder or judicial ruling, might appear to change people’s sense of themselves instantaneously. Examples on p. 131, 132. In order to rally people around a flag and anthem, nationalism must convince people not only that their nation has given them exclusive human qualities but that those are eternal. What masquerades as a return to the ancient roots is the invention of tradition, making a desperate bid to prove that the identity doesn’t change (by, in fact, changing it).
We all have multiple identities. But that doesn’t mean that certain identities don’t come to the front sometimes, according to the circumstances. Example on p. 146. Failing to understand the existence and importance of multiple identities is not just a philosophical problem. Example of unemployed Bangladeshi being addressed by the British government as Muslims rather than poor people who could be assisted economically.
Minorities attacking/comparing with other minorities is wrong. Three reasons: (1) it treats identities as interchangeable, when they’re not (they affect different things and work in different ways), (2) it assumes there’s a “league” of better/worse identities, which is wrong and even dangerous, and (3) putting minorities against each other undermines the potential to form coalitions, necessary to eradicate the discrimination.
Identities are rooted in material conditions. They confer power and privilege in relation to one another. Example of British Muslims alienated and excluded on p.180-182, and comparison to American Muslims on p. 184. Refusing to acknowledge the root causes for these problems helps no one. That the response is through religion is no surprise either (“attacked as X, they defend themselves as X”). When Muslims do bad things, it’s never about individuals, national customs, or political/economical context. It’s about Islam.
The question is not whether you draw a line for acceptable and non-acceptable, but who gets to draw it (power) and where they draw it (ideology). No process of integration can have much moral meaning without some reckoning with where power lies and how it might be differently distributed. Very interesting analysis of the Danish cartoons on p.189-193 (in summary, “it was a tale of power, hypocrisy and a crippling lack of self-knowledge”). Finally, see Sarkozy’s quote below. About it: if this relationship is going to work, France will also have to become more Islamic. This is only a problem for those who believe that Islam doesn’t have anything positive to offer France. Otherwise, it is up to them to explain why any self-respecting Muslim would want to integrate in a society that sees his or her faith as incapable of making a valuable contribution.
Globalisation brings identity extremism. The smaller the world seems and the less control we have over it, the more likely we are to retreat into the local spheres where we might have influence. The reason is that globalisation undermines democracy and the sovereignty of the nation state, which results in a dislocation of power because you don’t get to vote for corporations. Feeling they live in a world where they don’t have much control, many resort to the defence of “culture”, the one thing people think they have a grip on. Not only nationalism is on the increase, so too is the number of “nations” seeking to be recognised. The bigger the EU becomes, the smaller the areas where a strong sense of identity may take hold. Some notes about “national languages” on p. 220, 221.
Integration of Islam in European countries
Whether I like it or not, Islam is the second biggest religion in France. So you've got to integrate it to make it more French. —Nicolas Sarkozy
Globalisation brings identity extremism
What ends as Jihad may well begin as a simple search for a local identity, some set of common personal attributes to hold against the numbing and neutering uniformities of industrial modernization and the colonizing culture of McWorld. —Benjamin Barber, _Jihad vs. McWorld_
The lie of nationalism
Nationalism is not the awakening of nations into self-conciousness. It invents nations were they didn't exist. —Ernest Gellner, _Thought and Change_
Humans being all mixed
Marble cake, crazy quilt and tutti-frutti are all better metaphors of human physical variability than is the x number of races of humankind. —Roger Sanjek
The danger for minority languages —and for all small languages— is to be excluded from a select circle of languages, for which it is commercially viable to develop system of voice recognition or of translation by computer. —Ned Thomas
Jul 16, 2011
This is the second half of my summary of “Freedom from Command & Control”, by John Seddon. See the first part of the summary on this blog. This second part will cover chapters five to nine. As I said, the book also has an epilogue (“Revisiting Taylorism”) and an addendum (“The better way to improve public services”), not covered here.
Chapter 5: The ‘break-fix’ archetype
This chapter is case studies, from analysis to redesign. The first step is asking “what is the purpose, and how well are we achieving it?”. In the first case (house repairs) the purpose from the customer’s point of view is to do the repair properly and quickly. However, the measures they were using didn’t help. First, targets were being achieved by “cheating” (jobs would get closed and reopened even though they had not been completed). Second, the variation was growing (sign of no control).
The first step to redesign was to clarify the value work (diagnosis, access and repair). Then, the calls went directly to the tradesman working on the estate (call centre was ditched). Jobs were being completed in eight days, morale went up. The tradesmen elected to be paid a salary rather than based on bonuses, which they now recognised as a problem. If the exercise had begun suggesting workers that their payment should change, it would never have got off the ground.
Another case study had problems with procedures. No one knew who had written them. This is an important lesson about the consequences of separating decision-making from work: because they didn’t put in place people to question their relevance, the procedures remained static. To put meaning into work, you have to ask: “What is the purpose?”. It should not be “work to a specification”. To be able to question method you need measures related to purpose.
Chapter 6: Learning to see, learning to lead
Leadership is about influencing, an acceptance by the follower that the idea of the leader will produce meaningful change that is in the interest of all parties. We assume top leaders should be concerned with strategy and the lower ranks should be concerned with operations, but separating the two is often disastrous.
Hierarchies don’t like bad news, but studying an organisation as a system will certainly reveal bad news. Managers often have a slogan or mission about how customer-oriented they are. But without being strongly connected to operations, top management can only rely on others telling them if the organisation is suffering. Bad news does not travel easily up organisations. People atop such systems can’t be construed as leaders.
The most important system condition affecting performance is measurement. It drives short-term performance of functions at the expense of the system, encouraging rivalry and destroying teamwork. If you provide incentives, as the major causes of variation of performance are beyond the attributes of individuals, you create “losers”, which is demoralising because it’s essentially a lottery. Incentives are often used in sales forces, but in every case the author knows were they have changed to salaries, cooperation, customer service and sales have improved.
If you want to make the change from command-and-control to systems thinking, to have to ask yourself:
Do you want to lead an organisation where the people who do the work control and improve the work? You’ll need to devolve decision-making, and give up your current conception of management.
Are you prepared to change your own role?
Are you prepared to do these things when those above you might not understand or condone it?
And would you want to be the carrier of the news when you find it?
Chapter 7: Customers — people who can pull you away from the competition
Anecdote connected to “experts” (see “Technopoly”) on p.137. Mystery shopping is a classic illustration of the underlying issue of being centred on method and not the customer. A customer-driven adaptive system will have the following characteristics:
An unambiguous sense of purpose which permeates the organisation. Purpose is thought about in customer terms.
Strategic and operational plans that support each other. Strategy is informed by operations. Decision-makers understand how their roles contribute to the whole. Day-to-day operational decision-making is in the hands of those who do the work. And last but not least, people have a sense of freedom to act, learn, experiment, challenge — and build relationships with customers.
Chapter 8: Do these bake bread?
Often IT “solutions” create worse service and higher costs. Managers forget that features are not the same as benefits. They like the idea of tracking down all work and monitor all workers, and the idea of giving everyone access to the organisation’s repository of knowledge. These are features, but not necessarily benefits. The problems with IT begin with the way we approach it. We must first understand and improve, then ask if IT can further improve:
Understand. Ignore IT. Do not assume you have an IT problem or that you need an IT solution.
Improve. Improve performance without using IT.
Ask, “can IT further improve this process or system?”. Now, and only now, you should consider the use of, or changes to, IT.
The result is always less investment in IT and much more value from it. IT is “pulled” into the work rather than dictating the way the work works.
Chapter 9: Watch out for the toolheads
People assume that writing down the method will facilitate its adoption by others, but the codification of method misses this important issue: thinking. While the tools are accurate descriptions of what happens in terms of method, it is the context that is more important. The danger with codifying method as tools is that by ignoring the all-important context it obviates the requirement to understand the problem. Critique of a bunch of “lean methods” follows.
And that’s it. Hope it was useful :-)
Jul 15, 2011
This is the first part of my summary of “Freedom from Command & Control” by John Seddon. EDIT: See also the second half of the summary. He is also the author of “The Case Against ISO9000” and “I Want You To Cheat”. I have to admit FfC&C was a tad disappointing because I thought it was a book about project management (I didn’t choose the book, it was a present), but it was about management. I like the general idea of the book (advocates against following procedures, offers common sense and “local thinking” as alternative), but I have to say I don’t think I’ll be able to apply a lot to my daily life/work. Sure, many of the abstract principles of the book are applicable in many other situations, but much of the content of the book isn’t that useful to me. Other things I didn’t like about the book were that the author seems to repeat himself a lot, and that he seems to treat the “Toyota system” and its designer, Taiichi Ohno, as some kind of deity that can’t be wrong.
The book has a prologue, nine chapters, an epilogue and an addendum. This first part of the summary will cover the prologue and the first four chapters: “Once upon a time in manufacturing”, “The customer service centre as a system”, “Purpose, measures, method”, and “Better measures, better thinking”.
Our organisational norms are based on command-and-control thinking: we think of our organisations as top-down hierarchies, separate decision-making from work, teach managers that their job is to manage people and manage budgets. Command-and-control thinking has its roots in Taylorism (scientific management). The only way to fix many problems is taking a “systems view”, starting outside in (from the customer POV instead of the organisation POV). Not changing the way of thinking may lead to do the wrong thing “righter”.
Chapter 1: Once upon a time in manufacturing
The attitude is not “make these numbers”, but “learn and improve”, which requires openness and co-operation. They’re things our organisations claim as values, but rarely practise. See interesting anecdote on p.17 about the “we make, you sell” mindset. The “make-and-sell” model creates waste. The alternative, Ohno’s model, is that each person’s work is connected to the needs of customers, as opposed to arbitrary and counterproductive measures of activity. Improving “flow” leads to low cost because you only do what you need.
In manufacturing you can get away with command and control because the products you make are standard, but it never works for service organisations.
Chapter 2: The customer service centre as a system
Case study of a call centre. There were many measures of the amount of calls and such, but the managers knew nothing about the their nature. When there was an unanticipated demand, they assumed it was because customers were “enjoying the service”. The fact was they were having more problems (“failure demands”, as opposed to “value demands”). Almost half of the calls were failure demands. The majority of these had been caused by separating “phone work” from other work. Being blind about the nature of the demand also means losing opportunities to give a good service at a low cost.
In some other case, between 30 and 40% of the calls were failure demands. The manager said that it was “to be expected”. Rationalisation is the greatest enemy of learning. The only sensible thing to do is act. Failure demand is often predictable and, in that case, is caused by the way we work, it’s under our control.
Most service centres are managed solely on production data, measuring activity rather than anything relating to purpose. Service centres appear as costs in top management’s accounts, that why they’re attracted to the idea of outsourcing.
Chapter 3: Purposes, measures, method
There’s a systemic relationship between purpose (what we’re here to do), measures (how we know how we’re doing) and method (how we do it). The purpose of measures it to develop knowledge through action on the system. Three principles:
The test of a good measure: does this help in understanding/improving performance?
Measures must relate to purpose: we should think about the purpose from the customer’s POV (Purpose -> Measures -> Method)
Measures must be integrated with work: they must be in the hands of the people who do the work. This is a prerequisite for the development of knowledge and, hence, improvement.
Chapter 4: Better measures, better thinking
When there are budgets or targets, they become the purpose. Managers and workers know what they have to do to meet them, and how they’re going to be judged. Why do managers value targets?
They “motivate” people. But they motivate them to meet the target, not necessarily to do a good job. You cannot “motivate” someone (see Frederick Hertzberg’s classic 1968 article on motivation). You can provide an environment that can make people feel more motivated or demotivated, though.
They set direction. That can be acceptable if there’s no numerical expectation.
They should be reasonable. But, how can people know?
People should be involved in setting their targets. How would they know what’s a reasonable target? The assessment is basically arbitrary. The weak will try to minimise risk, while the strong will try to push the boundaries.
You have to focus on purpose, not production. The assumption in C&C is that freedom must be subordinated to efficiency. But the truth is, freedom enables efficiency. The people doing the work know what’s the best way to handle a concrete customer demand to increase efficiency.
And that’s it for the first part. The next part will cover the rest of the book. That’s chapters five to nine, because I skipped the epilogue and addendum.
May 11, 2011
Looking for the mouse
Transforming free time into cognitive surplus is not just about social tools. We need motive and opportunity, too. The open question is what benefits will emerge from our ability to form this time into cognitive surplus. At the lolcats end, experimentation won’t stop, but we can’t count on new kinds of socially beneficial activities just happening. Creating a participatory culture with wider benefits for society is harder than sharing amusing photos.
While it’s tempting to imagine a broad conversation about what we should do as a society with the possibilities and virtues of participation, society doesn’t work like that. The essential source of value right now is coming less from a master strategy and move from broad experimentation, that’s why we need to improve the ability of small groups to try radical things. We’re still disoriented by having two billion new participants in a media previously operated by a small group of professionals (this is the paradox of revolution: the bigger the opportunity, the less anyone can extrapolate the future from the present).
Lessons for social software (in three categories):
Creating new opportunities: Start small (it’s harder to imagine how a service will be useful when it doesn’t have many users; but if they only work when large, they’ll probably never grow); Ask “Why?” (different people have different motivations, not necessarily close to that of the designers; take into account); Behaviour follows opportunity (if you want different behaviour, you have to provide different opportunities); Default to social (not opt-in; Delicious vs. Backflip story on p.196).
Dealing with early growth: A hundred users are harder than a dozen and harder than a thousand (there’s a medium size that doesn’t have the advantages of intimacy or of big communities); People differ. More people differ more (when given a narrow range, people converge; but when anyone can create media, the array of interests goes full crazy; in participatory systems, “average” is an almost useless concept; people running the service can’t insist on participation being equal or universal; long tail of participation); Intimacy doesn’t scale (but you can cluster participants into smaller groups, like Yahoo! mailing lists); Support a supportive culture (“quiet car” behaviour, p.202).
Adapting to users’ surprises: The faster you learn, the sooner you’ll be able to adapt; Success causes more problems that failure (success brings people, not always with realistic expectations or good will; trying to prepare in advance works very poorly in real life; “if you want to solve hard problems, have hard problems”); Clarity is violence (groups tolerate governance only after enough value is generated to make the burden worthwhile; since it builds over time, rules have to follow, not lead); Try anything. Try everything (the single greatest predictor of how much value we get of our cognitive surplus is how much we allow and encourage to experiment, because the only group that can try everything is everybody).
And that’s it. I hope you enjoyed it :-)
May 11, 2011
This is the second part of my summary of “Cognitive Surplus”, by Clay Shirky. It will cover chapters “Culture” and “Personal, Communal, Public, Civic”. EDIT: You can read parts one and three in this blog.
Day care fines story on p.131. Knowledge is the most combinable thing we have, but taking advantage of it requires special conditions (“The Economics of Knowledge” by Dominique Foray): (1) size of the community, (2) cost of sharing knowledge, (3) clarity of knowledge shared (also for people outside the group) and (4) culture (ie. community’s set of shared assumptions about its work and member relations with one another).
Society is shaped as much by inconvenience as by capability. When things that used to be inconvenient stop being so, things change. Some inconvenience-managing professions, like restaurant critics, stop being so useful or change their role when it’s easy to access dozens of opinions of people who have eaten there. A common objection to the spread of shared knowledge is that we need professional skill (“you don’t want a brain surgery from someone that learned it from Wikipedia”). Two weaknesses of this thought: (1) you don’t want a brain surgery from someone that learned in Encyclopaedia Britannica either, and (2) it suggests you should always choose professional over amateur, which nobody does (even people using that argument).
Personal, Communal, Public, Civic
We come from an era in which sharing was thought to be inherently (not accidentally) limited to small groups. Big change in social production is not utopia: throwing off old constraints won’t leave us without constraints, just with new ones. For most groups, the primary threat is internal: the risk of falling into emotionally satisfying but ineffective behaviour (p.163-164).
Increased communication and contact with others isn’t risk-free, and new opportunity requires ways to manage risk (couch surfing vs. “Brides on Tour” story, p.166-168).
Our new freedom to act in concert and in public is good at a personal level, but also others. Sharing has a spectrum, with four interesting points:
Personal. Hobbyists, think icanhascheezburger. Between uncoordinated individuals.
Communal. Inside a group of collaborators (eg. meetup group for post-partum depression).
Public. People actively creating a public resource (e.g. the Apache project).
Civic. Groups actively trying to change society, like Pink Chaddi.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have lolcats of fan-fiction: it’s that the latter groups are harder to create and maintain (“what you want” vs. “what you need”), and they benefit society more.
No fixed set of rules for governing groups that create social value (eBay cheater story, p.177-178), but two universals: a group must defend itself against external and internal threats. The former are more attention-getting, but the latter are more serious in keeping a group of volunteers committed and focused. Understanding how to create/maintain a group like this is one of the great challenges of our era.
And that was it for the second part. The next part will cover the last chapter, “Looking for the Mouse”.
May 10, 2011
This is the first part of my summary of “Cognitive Surplus”, by Clay Shirky. It will cover chapters “Gin, TV and Cognitive Surplus”, “Means”, “Motive” and “Opportunity”. EDIT: You can read parts two and three in this blog.
1. Gin, TV and Cognitive Surplus
The Gin craze in early 1700 in England didn’t stop because of laws. It was treated as the problem to be solved, but was the reaction to the problem (dramatic social change and inability to adapt). Since World War II, increases in GDP and others have forced the industrialised world to deal with free time on a national scale. We didn’t watch good or bad TV: the decision to watch it often preceded any concern about what was being shown. TV became the gin. We have known the effects of TV on happiness for long, but it kept growing because it was the reaction to the problem (free time).
Wikipedia is roughly 100 million hours of human thought. Americans watch roughly 200 billion hours of TV a year: that’s 2000 Wikipedias annually. Something that makes today remarkable is that we can treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects. Society never knows what to do with a surplus at first (hence “surplus”). Passive participation is easier… but things are changing (less TV watched, not pure consumers anymore). Some TV executives think that youngsters behaviour will change when they grow up and they will want to just sit in front of the TV (“milkshake mistake”, p. 13).
Lessons learned from the Ushahidi service (p.15): People want to do something to make the world a better place. They will help if invited. Access to cheap, flexible tools removes many of the barriers for trying new things. No need for fancy computers to harness cognitive surplus, phones are enough. One you have figured out how to harness, other can replicate your technique.
For the first time in history, being part of a globally interconnected group is the normal case for most citizens.
Story of Korean boy band fan activists, p.32. The old view of online as a separate space was an accident of history. Back when the online population was tiny, most people you knew in your daily life were not part of it.
Edgar Allan Poe quote, p.47 (summary: “multiplication of books is evil”). Correct, but freedom has compensating values, like increase of experimentation. It’s not choosing between trash or classics (p.50), we get both. And we can’t get new classics without experimenting.
We have to rethink the basic concept of media: it’s society’s connective tissue. It’s how you know about anything more than 10 yards away. It used to be separated into public media and personal media (letters, phone calls). People surprised at new behaviour assume behaviour is a stable category, but it isn’t: human motivations change little, but opportunity can change a lot.
Story about Grobanites for Charity on p.67-68. The important question is not “where did they find the time?”, it’s “why create a separate entity for themselves?”. They didn’t take any money for expenses (see p.75)! Reference to experiment when people are less interested in a task after being paid for it, p.71.
There are two intrinsic personal motivations: be autonomous and desire to be competent. Social motivations: connectedness/membership and sharing/generosity. Benkler and Nissenbaum (p.78) conclude that social motivations reinforce personal ones.
When coordinating group action was hard, most amateur groups stayed small and informal. With today’s tools, we see a new hybrid: large, public, amateur groups. Globalisation isn’t necessarily about size, but about scope: you can have a tiny global organisation. Amateurs generally use public access not to reach the broadest possible audience, but people like themselves. If you give people a way to act on their desire for autonomy, competence, or generosity and sharing, they might take you up for it. Only pretending might make people want to revolt (Angry Drunken Dwarf story, p.94).
Story of experiment rejecting unfair splits (p.106-108). People derive pleasure from punishing wrongdoing, but doesn’t happen against computers.
Generations do differ, but less because people differ than because opportunities do.
Mar 16, 2011
This is the fourth (and last) part of my summary of “Technopoly” by Neil Postman. It covers the two final chapters, “The Great Symbol Drain” and “The Loving Resistance Fighter”. You can see parts one, two and three in this blog.
The Great Symbol Drain
Examples of “blasphemous” ads in p. 164-165. It’s not blasphemy but trivialisation conducted by the commercial enterprise, against which there can’t be laws. The adoration of technology pre-empts the adoration of anything else, and thus religious or national symbols are made impotent quickly, drained of sacred or serious connotations. [Question: The US has stayed quite religious…] But mass-advertising is not the cause of the great symbol drain: such cultural abuse could not have occurred without technologies to make it possible and a world-view to make it desirable. The erosion of symbols is followed by loss of narrative.
Symbols are made meaningless by frequent invocation and indiscriminate contexts in which they’re used. Sometimes the argument is made that the promiscuous use of serious symbols is a form of irreverence, the antidote to excessive or artificial piety. But there’s nothing in the commercial exploitation that suggests that excess piety is a vice: business is too serious for that (example in p. 167).
Two main points: (1) cultures must have narratives (the alternative is living without meaning, the ultimate negation of life), and (2) narratives are given form by symbols that call for respect, even devotion.
In Education, we improve the education of our youth by improving the “learning technologies”. To the question “why should we do this?” the answer is “to make learning more efficient and more interesting”. The answer is considered adequate, since in technopoly efficiency and interest need no justification. But it’s usually not noticed that the answer is about means, not ends. It offers no way to educational philosophy, and even blocks it by focusing on the how, rather than why. What do we believe education is for? One discouraging answer is to get persevering students a good job, or to compete with the Japanese or Germans to be the first economy. Neither is grand or inspiring and suggests that the US is not a culture, but an economy.
The technopoly story is progress without limits, rights without responsibilities, technology without cost. It doesn’t have moral centre. It puts it its place efficiency, interest and economic advance, and promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress. It casts aside narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells instead a life of skills, technological expertise, ecstasy of consumption. The purpose is to produce functionaries for an ongoing technopoly.
The Loving Resistance Fighter
The response to living in a technopoly can be divided in two: what individuals can do and what the culture can do. For individuals, can’t give a how-to (that would be what “experts” do), just a principle: be a loving resistance fighter. “Loving” means keeping the symbols and narratives close to your heart, despite the confusion, errors and stupidities. As for “resistance fighter”, people who can resist technopoly are those who:
don’t pay attention to polls unless they know the questions asked, and why
refuse to accept efficiency as pre-eminent goal in human relations
have freed themselves from the magical power of numbers, don’t regard calculation as an appropriate substitute for judgement, or precision as synonym of truth
refuse to allow psychology or other “social science” to pre-empt the language and thought of common sense
are at least suspicious of the idea of progress, and don’t confuse information with understanding
don’t regard the aged as irrelevant
take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honour, and to “reach out and touch someone” expect the person to be in the same room
take great narratives of religion seriously and don’t believe that science is the only system of thought capable of truth
know the difference between sacred and profane, and don’t wink at tradition for modernity’s sake
admire technological ingenuity and don’t think it’s the highest form of human achievement
A resistance fighter understands that technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, and therefore require scrutiny, criticism and control.
What the culture can do: the best way to achieve a revolution is through school. Even though education is itself a technology, this is persistently scrutinised, criticised and modified.
The most important contribution schools can make is to give a sense of coherence in their studies, sense of meaning and interconnectedness. Modern secular education fails because it has no moral, social or intellectual centre. No set of ideas permeates the whole curriculum. It doesn’t even put forward a clear vision of what constitutes an educated person, unless it’s someone who has “skills” (a technocrat’s ideal: a person without commitment and no point of view, but with plenty of marketable skills).
It’s obvious that schools cannot restore religion to the centre of the life of learning, no one would take “learning for the greater glory of god” seriously. Some people would have us stress love of country as a unifying principle, but experience has shown that this invariably translates into love of government, in practice indistinguishable from Soviet or Chinese education. Others would put “emotional health” as the core of the curriculum, but that’d make a curriculum irrelevant since only “self-knowledge” is considered worthwhile. It’s hard to suggest a theme for a diverse, secularised population, but the theme from Jacob Kronowski’s “The Ascent of Man” (the story of Humanity’s creativeness trying to conquer loneliness, ignorance and disorder) is proposed. That would require joining art and science, past and present (as it’s a continuous story).
Virtues of adopting ascent of Humanity as a scaffolding: it doesn’t require changing the list of subjects much; it’s a theme that can begin in the earliest grades and extend through college; provides a point of view to understand the meaning of subjects (each subject would be a “battleground” of intellectual struggle that has taken and still takes place). The curriculum itself may be seen as a celebration of human intelligence and creativity, not a meaningless collection of diploma requirements. And the theme of ascent of Humanity gives a non-technical, non-commercial definition of education. Becoming educated means being aware of origins and growth of knowledge, to learn how to participate, even as listener, in that ascent. It’s an idea- and coherence-centred education, that stresses history, scientific mode of thinking, disciplined use of language, knowledge of arts and religion, and the continuity of the human enterprise.
History is in some ways the central discipline. It’s not really one subject, but all subjects have history. Teaching biology today without teaching what we knew or thought we knew is to reduce knowledge to a mere consumer product, and deprives students of a sense of meaning of what and how we know. Children would thus begin to understand that knowledge is not a fixed thing, but a stage in human development with past and future. Semantics should be taught, and would give the capability of critical thought (a reading test doesn’t invite to ask whether or not what’s written is true; or if it is, what is has to do with anything).
Finally, two indispensable subjects to understand where we came from:
History of technology, so students understand the relations between our technics and our social and psychic worlds, so they begin informed conversations about where technology takes us and how.
Religion, with painting, music, technology, architecture, literature and science intertwined. Specifically, course on comparative religion. Deal with religion as expression of human creativeness to answer fundamental questions. This course would be descriptive, not promoting any religion.
To summarise, all subjects would be seen as a stage in humanity’s historical development. There should be no illusion that this education will bring the thrust of the tech-world to a halt, but it will help begin and sustain serious conversation to distance ourselves from it and criticise and modify it.
Mar 10, 2011
This is the third part of my summary of “Technopoly” by Neil Postman. You can read parts one and two on this blog. This part covers chapters “The Ideology of Machines: Medical Technology”, “The Ideology of Machines: Computer Technology”, “Invisible Technologies” and “Scientism”.
The Ideology of Machines: Medical Technology
Example of lie detector on p. 92,93. In technopoly, accuracy in insisted on for machinery. The idea embedded in the machine is ignored, no matter how peculiar. People who have lived together for years would know if they get along, but in technopoly subjective knowledge has no official status: it must be confirmed by tests administered by experts. Machines eliminate complexity, doubt and ambiguity. They provide numbers we can see and calculate with. What’s significant about this “magic” is that it directs our attention to the wrong place, and by doing so it evokes wonder, not understanding. We are encouraged to ignore the ideas inside machines, which makes us blind to their ideology. Example of stethoscope in p. 97-99. Two key ideas promoted by the stethoscope: medicine is about the disease, not the patient; what the patient knows is untrustworthy, and what the machine knows, reliable. Another reason for physicians to be estranged from their own judgement: everyone with a headache wants a CAT scan (roughly 60% are unnecessary). They’re done as protection against malpractice suits. Thus medical practice has moved to total reliance on machine-generated information, so have the patients. Also, doctors are reimbursed by insurance based on what they do, not the amount of time spent with a patient. It’s more profitable to do CAT scan than to investigate. They ideas promoted by this domination of technology can be summarised as: Nature is an implacable enemy that can be subdued only by technology means; problems created by technology can only be solved by more technology; medical practice must be focused on disease, not patients (it’s possible to say that the operation/therapy was successful but the patient died); information from the patient cannot be taken as seriously as from a machine.
Does this lead to better medicine? In some cases, yes. Would medicine be better were it not to totally reliant on technology? Yes. very few doctors are satisfied with technology’s stronghold on medicine. [Question: no references to back up that claim? seriously?]
The Ideology of Machines: Computer Technology
McCarthy: “even machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs […] it’s too hot in there, it’s too cold in here, and it’s just right in here”. Redefinition of “belief”, simulating an idea is the same as replicating it; most important, rejecting the idea that mind is a biological phenomenon. Part of humans’ intangible life can be simulated by a machine in some respects, but never duplicated. This kind of language is not merely picturesque anthropomorphism: it’s implied that computers have will, intentions or reasons, so humans are relieved of their responsibility over its decisions, something bureaucrats love. “The computer show…” and “The computer has determined…” is technopoly’s equivalent of “It’s God will…”.
Computers have served to strengthen technopoly’s hold to make people believe that technological innovation is synonym with human progress. We have lost confidence in human judgement and subjectivity and devalued the singular capacity to see things whole in all their psychic, emotional and moral dimensions and replaced this with faith in the powers of technical calculation. Emphasis on the technological processes and little in the substance. Believing most serious problems (personal and public) are due to lack of fast access to information is nonsense: people dying of starvation, families braking up, mistreated children, crime, etc. Lack of “technological modesty”: if digital computers had been around before the atomic bomb, people would have said the bomb could hot have been invented without it. But it was, and many things are possible without it.
This chapter considers mechanisms that act like machines but aren’t normally thought of as part of technopoly’s repertoire. Questions give direction to our thoughts, generate new ideas, venerate old ones, expose facts, hide them. Examples in p. 125,126.
Examples of “statistics gone wild” on p. 129. Stephen Jay Gould’s book “The Mismeasure of Man” explores the malignant role of stats in “measurement” of intelligence. Three points from it: (1) reification (turning an abstract idea into a thing): we use “intelligence” for a variety of human capabilities of which we approve, but if we believe it to be a thing, we’ll believe scientific procedures can locate and measure it; (2) ranking requires a criterion for assigning individuals in a single series; thus we assume that intelligence is not only a thing, but a single thing, located in the brain and accessible to the assignment of a number; (3) this restricts and biases us, but it would go unnoticed because numbers are the ultimate test of objectivity. Fundamental subjectivity will become invisible and the objective number will become reified.
It’s not unreasonable to argue that polling of public opinion is good. Our political leaders must have some information about what we believe to represent us. The problems are:
The forms of the questions condition the answers.
Promoting the assumption that an opinion is a thing inside people that can be exactly located and extracted with the pollster’s questions.
Ignoring (generally) what people know about the subjects they’re queried on.
Shifting responsibility between political leaders and their constituents. Congressmen were expected to use their own judgement about what was in the public interest.
Not all statistics statements are useless, just that like any other technology it tends to go out of control. In technopoly, we tend to believe that only through autonomy of techniques we can achieve our goals. But will we control them or will they control us?
The argument is not with technique, but with techniques that become sanctified and rule out the possibilities of other ones. When a method of doing things is so associated with an institution that we don’t know what came first, it’s hard to change the institution or even imagine alternative methods for achieving our purposes. So it’s necessary to understand where our techniques come from and what they’re good for; we must make them visible so that they may be restored to our sovereignty.
Scientism is three interrelated ideas that, together, stand as one of the pillars of technopoly: (1) natural sciences provide a way to unlock the secrets of both the human heart and the direction of social life; (2) society can be rationally and humanely reorganisation according to principles social science will uncover, and (3) faith in science can serve as a belief system that gives meaning to life, sense of well-being, morality and even immortality.
Social science bashing in p. 147-155. Social researchers tell their stories essentially for didactic and moralistic purposes, like Buddha, Confucius or Jesus. They never discover anything, only rediscover what people were once told and needed to be told again. So Scientism is the desperate hope, wish and illusory belief that the standardised procedures called “science” can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority.
And this is the end of the third part of my summary. The fourth and last one will cover the last two chapters, “The Great Symbol Drain” and “The Loving Resistance Fighter”.
Mar 8, 2011
This is the second part of my summary of “Technopoly” by Neil Postman (see the first one on this blog). It covers chapters “From Technocracy to Technopoly”, “The Improbable World” and “The Broken Defenses”.
From Technocracy to Technopoly
By the end of the 18th century, technocracy was well underway. The greatest invention of the 19th was the idea of invention itself. We had learned how to invent things, and why became less important. The idea that if something could be done, should, was born in 19th century and along with it, a belief in all principles through which invention succeeds: objectivity, efficiency, expertise, standardisation, measurement and progress.
Technocracy gave the idea of progress, and necessarily loosened our bonds with tradition. Technocracy filled the air with the promise of new freedoms and new forms of social organisation. It also speeded up the world and turned time into an adversary technology could defeat. Citizens of technocracies knew that science and technology didn’t provide philosophies by which to live and clung to their fathers’ philosophies. The opposing world-views (technological and traditional) coexisted in tension.
Technopoly eliminated one of those thought-worlds. It did so not by making them illegal, immoral or unpopular, but invisible and therefore irrelevant by redefining religion, art, family, politics, history, truth, privacy, intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements. Technopoly is a totalitarian technocracy.
In 1911, The Principles of Scientific Management, by Frederick W. Taylor, contains the first explicit and formal outline of assumptions of the thought-world of technopoly. These include the beliefs that the primary, if not only, goal of human labour and thought is efficiency; that technology calculation is in all respects superior to human judgement; that human judgement can in fact not be trusted (for it is ambiguous and complex); that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured doesn’t exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided or conducted by experts. Workers would have to abandon any traditional rules of thumb, and in fact were relieved of any responsibility to think at all. Led to the idea that techniques of any kind can do our thinking for us, which is among the basic principles of technopoly.
The Improbable World
In the Middle Ages, people believed in the authority of their religion no matter what. Today, in the authority of our science, because the world is incomprehensible to most of us and it’s hard to keep a comprehensive and consistent picture of the world.
Information being the new god of culture solves the information scarcity problem, but says nothing about information gluttony. It’s strange that few have noticed. The problem in the Middle East, South Africa or Northern Ireland, or with starvation or crime rates is not lack of information. Yet, technopolists insist that the world needs more information. Information is elevated to a metaphysical status: it’s both the means and ends of human creativity.
One way to define technopoly is a society with an inoperable information immune system (cultural AIDS). That’s why it’s possible to say almost anything without contradiction provided you begin with “a study has shown” or “scientists now tell us that”. And it’s why in technopoly there can be no transcendent sense of purpose or meaning, no cultural coherence. Information is dangerous if there’s no higher purpose it serves.
The presumed close connection among information, reason and usefulness began to lose its legitimacy toward mid-19th century with telegraph. This created the idea of context-free information, ie. the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social or political decision-making and action. Technopoly’s milieu is one with damaged ties between information and human purpose: information appears indiscriminately directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and high speeds, disconnected from theory, meaning or purpose.
It’s a world in which the idea of human progress has been replaced by the idea of technological progress. The aim is not to reduce ignorance, superstition, and suffering but no accommodate ourselves to the requirements of new technologies.
The Broken Defenses
Technopoly is the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfaction in technology, and takes orders from technology. One way of defining technopoly is “what happens to a society when defenses against information glut have broken down”. A society needs to remove or protect from information, like an organism protects itself from unwanted (incompatible?) cell growth. [Question: what does this mean in a globalised world with so many migrants?]
Social institutions do that by denying people access to information, but mainly by assigning the weight/value one must give to information. Example of court of law (no personal opinions, no mention of previous convictions, etc.) in p. 73. Schools have a curriculum, implying that what is outside of it, a serious student ought not think about. Together with family and political party, they are a culture’s information immune system. The most imposing institutions are religion and state. They manage information through myths and theories about fundamental questions.
Theories are (or lead to) oversimplifications. That is their function: to oversimplify to allow people to organise, weight and exclude information. [Question: how does this relate to “not taking sides” (staying in “the middle ground”)?]
The peril of trusting social, moral and political affairs to bureaucrat is great, as a bureaucrat is indifferent to both content and totality of a human problem. “I have no responsibility for the human consequence of my decisions, only for the efficiency of my part of the bureaucracy, which must be maintained at all costs”.
Experts in technopoly claim dominion not only over technological matters, but also social, psychological and moral. There’s nothing that hasn’t been technicalised and relegated to the control of experts. The role of an expert is to concentrate on one field of knowledge, eliminate what has no bearing of a problem, and use the rest to assist solving it. This works very well for technical problems (rockets, sewers). Less well when technology and human purposes might conflict, like architecture and medicine. Disastrous for situations that cannot be solved by technological means and where efficiency is irrelevant, like education, family, law, etc.
In technopoly, experts have the charisma of priestliness. Their god speaks of efficiency, precision, objectivity. They call sin “social deviance”, evil “psychopathology”. Sin and evil disappear because can’t be measured or objectified, and thus not be dealt with by experts. The rest of the book explains why it cannot work, and the pain and consequences of trying.
And this is the end of the second part of my summary. The next part will cover chapters “The Ideology of Machines: Medical Technology”, “The Ideology of Machines: Computer Technology”, “Invisible Technologies” and “Scientism”.
Mar 6, 2011
This is the first part of my summary of the book “Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology”, by Neil Postman. Especially after reading this book, I feel forced to say (and insist on) that this is just my take on this book: it’s subjective and incomplete (parts that I found less interesting, agreed less with or I found less value in I cover less, or not cover at all). That said, it’s not like I agree with everything in my summary, but I found _that _the featured parts were good food for thought.
The book has an introduction and 11 chapters. This first part of the summary will cover the introduction and the first two chapters, “The judgement of Thamus” and “From Tools to Technocracy”.
The main argument this book explores is not between humanists and scientists, but between technology and everybody else. Most people believe that technology is a friend. It is a friend that asks for trust and obedience, which most give because its gifts are bountiful. The dark side it that it creates a culture without moral foundation, undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living. Technology is both a friend and enemy. The book tries to explain when, how and why technology became a particularly dangerous enemy.
The judgement of Thamus
Socrates story (p. 3,4). We can learn from it that it’s a mistake to think that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect: it’s always a blessing and a burden.
Radical technologies create new definitions for old terms, and this happens without us being fully concious of it (e.g. telegraph changed “information”, TV changed “political debate”, “news” and “public opinion”). It’s insidious and dangerous, different from the process of creating new terms. This is what Tamus tried to teach us: technology redefines all the words we live by, and it doesn’t pause to tell us. Or us to ask.
Example of technologies that creates new conceptions of what is real: giving marks in school (first done in 1792). Hard to imagine a number/letter is a tool or technology, or that by using a technology to judge someone’s behaviour we’re doing something peculiar. If a number can be given to the quality of thought, why not to mercy, love, hate, beauty, creativity, intelligence or sanity? Psychologists, sociologists and educators find it quite hard to work without numbers. We believe without numbers we can’t acquire or express authentic knowledge. Not arguing it’s a stupid or dangerous idea, just peculiar (even more so that not so many people find it peculiar). Saying that someone should be doing better work because has a IQ of 134, or that someone has 7.2 on a sensitivity scale, would have sounded like gibberish to Galileo, Shakespeare or Thomas Jefferson.
Embedded in every tool there’s an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world like this rather than like that (example of clock in p. 14,15). There are “knowledge monopolies” created by important technologies: benefits and deficits not distributed equally (example in p. 9). But it’s not a well-planned conspiracy, as if the winners know well what’s won and lost. Such prejudices are not evident at first, hence one can’t conspire to be a winner. Also, technological change is neither additive or subtractive, but ecological. If you remove caterpillars from a habitat, you don’t get the same without caterpillars, you get a different environment.
What we need to consider about the computer is not efficiency as a teaching tool: we need to know in what ways it’s altering our conception of learning, and how, with TV, it undermines the old idea of school. Need to know if technology changes our conception of reality, the relationship of the rich to the power, the idea of happiness itself. A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience misses the significant question: in what sense new media alters what is meant by religion, church or even god?
These changes are strange and dangerous, and there’s only a dull, even stupid, awareness of what it is. In part because it has no name. The book calls it Technopoly.
From tools to technocracy
One taxonomy of cultures based on their relation to technology: tool-using cultures, technocracies and technopolies. All types can be found on the planet, but the first is disappearing. Until 17th century, all cultures were tool-using, but with considerable variation on the tools available. The main characteristic is that their tools were largely invented for two things: solve a specific and urgent problem of physical life, or to serve the symbolic world of arts, politics, myth, ritual and religion. Tools did not attack (or intended to) dignity or integrity of the culture. Culture actually directed the invention of the tools and limited their uses.
To avoid oversimplification on the definition of tool-using cultures: the quantity of technology is not relevant in the definition; they may be ingenious and productive in solving problems of the physical environment; and they’re not impoverished technologically (may even be surprisingly sophisticated). The name tool-using derives from the relationship between tools and the belief system or ideology. Tools are not intruders, they’re integrated into the culture. We may say tool-using cultures are theocratic or at least unified by some metaphysical theory. Such theory provides order and meaning to existence. It makes it hard for technics to subordinate people to its own needs.
In technocracy, tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture. Everything must give way, to some degree, to their development. Tools are not integrated into the culture, they attack it. They bid to become the culture.
Kepler played a role toward the conception of a technocracy: a clear separation of moral and intellectual values, one of the pillars of technocracy. Bacon was the first technocracy man, but it took some time for others to follow: people came to believe that knowledge is power, humanity is capable of progressing, poverty is a great evil, and the life of an average person is as meaningful as any other. It’s not true that God died, but it lost much of its power and meaning, and with it the satisfactions of a culture in which moral and intellectual values were integrated.
And this is the end of the first part of my summary. I’ll post the second one soon, covering chapters “From Technocracy to Technopoly”, “The Improbable World” and “The Broken Defenses”.
Jan 20, 2011
Executing: stay healthy
It’s often necessary to build instability to enable high performance (e.g. talented people with troubled personalities). The trick is managing instability so it doesn’t turn into unrecoverable or damaging situations.
Poor health has an effect on people’s impression and can create a positive feedback loop. If someone was hurting you or another person, you would tell them to stop immediately. That’s the reaction people inside a team should have. To stop a positive loop, do everything you can to stop the actions causing the loop; to stop hunting, increase the speed of reaction or increase friction by slowing down and relaxing.
On measuring health: compromised team stability/integrity or poor performance as a result of mistakes or failures indicates problems. It should be possible to create a useful measure of general health for any activity or system. E.g.: number of unresolved defects, number of incomplete features, performance test results, etc. The problem with those reports is that they can be misused or misinterpreted, esp. if reduced to a traffic light-style of health. It’s important to take a strategic view and ensure that problems, not symptoms, are addressed.
Innovating: exchange ideas
Joy Paul Guilford, American psychologist, defined two types of thinking: convergent (associated to math/science: find a single solution to a problem) and divergent (arts, generating many possible solutions to a problem). The latter, Guilford associated to four skills: fluency (quickly produce large number of solutions), flexibility (simultaneously consider many solutions to the same problem), originality (produce solutions others haven’t thought of), elaboration (adding to/developing existing solutions).
Diversity can improve the success of innovation, either by producing more initial good ideas or by rejecting the poor ones at the end. Collaboration improves the success of innovation by leveraging free exchange of ideas. This is not always easy to achieve: it’s not a free-for-all or selecting what’s the best idea, it’s creating a common pool by listening, respecting, suspending and voicing (see William Isaacs and p.244).
Innovation is enabled by risk-taking, collaboration, diversity and exchange of ideas. Now, how do you create a culture of innovation? First, people must feel there’s room for it (not have all time committed to things that absolutely must be done). People often feel they don’t have the time or freedom (Google’s 20% time and such). They also must feel there’s room for mistakes.
I'm so glad you made this mistake. Because I want to run a company where we are moving too quickly and doing too much, not being too cautious and doing too little. If we don't have any of these mistakes, we're just not taking enough risk. > > Larry Page > >
Also important is to allow/encourage people to form groups for those things and work in whatever they want: top-heavy approaches can stifle innovation, especially if execs aren’t tuned in or don’t have the time and become a bottleneck.
Innovating: take measured risks
Basic options for risk management: avoid, transfer, share, reduce/mitigate, accept, ignore, exploit. Perils of not enough diversity: one study found that across the entire universe of patients, the single largest indicator of treatment wasn’t symptoms or background, but the doctor’s background.
Specific risks of the jazz process principles:
Use enough rules. Removing the wrong rules. Some rules guard against mistakes: in that case, compensate with skills or experience.
Employ top talent. Excessive individualism. Also, depending on highly talented people can be a problem if they leave. Another problem is overconfidence (top talent doesn’t guarantee victory). Finally, not using them wisely (ie. using them for routine tasks).
Putting the team first. Suffocating individualism, and amplifying bad behaviour/thinking (groupthink and polarisation).
Build trust and respect. Trust must be measured and not be blind (the need is proportional to the risk of the trust being misplaced). Always exercise caution and don’t be afraid to question things.
Leading on demand. Leadership should be granted to people who understand (and will keep) team stability. Also, define protocols for delegating, transferring and initiating leadership. Another risk is that no one will lead: have a default leader.
Act transparently. Early designs might put people off if they’re too early, and they might not give it a second chance. Transparency can be damaging, annoying or boring if it’s about the wrong things.
Make contributions count. The only real risk is being too reserved and contributing less.
Reduce friction. It may restrict performance (e.g. you could minimise social friction by repressing all dissenting opinions). It may be tempting to remove things causing friction, but it might be a bad idea: those things might have benefits, so it might be possible to reduce friction without eliminating them.
Stay healthy. The only risk is accepting too much outside help, or too quickly.
Exchange ideas. Focus might be lost, innovation attempts should be directed. When they are directed, the primary concern is introducing instability.
“The Jazz Process” is a very good book, recommended to anyone interested in how groups of people can achieve high performance in any activity. It also has many jazz references, which make the book even more interesting if you’re into jazz. If I had to say something bad about the book, I’d say that it could be easier to skim if you just want to get information from it (it’s written to be read from beginning to end, it seems). Of course, if you want to read it the “traditional way” it’s probably an advantage, because it’s fun reading about jazz and other fields and it makes the reading flow better.
Jan 18, 2011
This is the third part of my summary of the book “The Jazz Process” by Adrian Cho. You can read parts one and two on this blog. This part will cover the rest of “Collaborating” and part of “Executing”.
Collaborating: lead on demand
Two surprising things about leadership: no widespread agreement for the definition and we tend to think it’s the sole responsibility of a small group. The main point in leadership is taking initiative (within your roles or responsibilities). Successful leadership often has a domain, and it’s not valid in others.
Jazz musicians simply cannot let leadership roles remain statically assigned if they want to create interesting, innovative music > > Adrian Cho > >
Blitzkrieg was successful because of decentralised leadership. Strict, centralised leadership inhibits creativity and agility: the path to success lies in giving up control. [However, have a look at the “Controversy” section in Wikipedia—Esteban]
Issuing navigational commands is one of the most vital elements of leadership. Taking the first step along a different path is also critically important, and this duty must be shared. People should feel responsible for helping steer and maintain momentum. If any member of the team has ideas about how to improve performance, she should feel empowered to speak out.
Not everyone can lead at the same time, you have to balance individual creativity and team stability. Alternating between leader and follower helps broaden their perception, which results in better leaders and followers.
Collaborating: act transparently
Transparency in execution reduces the time for others to (1) observe your actions (and increases the likelihood of it happening), and (2) understand/interpret their impact (increasing accuracy of interpretations). Transparency potentially grows teams, communities and customer bases, as we appreciate honesty, openness and authenticity; we feel naturally curious to know what happens behind the scenes; and it can alleviate fears/concerns about the unknown.
Leaders sometimes assume employees will require only certain information. This is somewhat arrogant, and employees often feel they’re left in the dark. It also makes groupthink more likely. Openness makes people understand each other’s problems, important when failures or low performance strike.
A research on plane accidents showed that leaders are far more likely to make mistakes when rushing into action instead of waiting to obtain more information that often can be obtained from other team members. Further research on those results showed that pilots making the right choices routinely had open exchanges with other crew members. Besides, crew members who worked with leaders not promoting open culture were unwilling to intervene in potential accidents even if they had information about it.
Transparency in enabled by authenticity, openness, timeliness and clarity.
Collaborating: make contributions count
Recognising valuable contributions rewards and motivates. To make contributions more valuable, people should measure: (1) effort to make and integrating the contribution (not everyone requires the same effort for the value), (2) value of the contribution (the value of a contribution is a function of many things, including the other contributions), (3) impact of integrating the contribution (never underestimate the impact of integrating a contribution).
Making the most with available resources develops resilience in the team. Striving for perfection should not be above all else: mistakes in sports are common, but defeating your opponent is usually more important than an error-free game.
We have to contribute in a way that makes sense for us individually (examples in p.175). By focusing more on quality than quantity, we can spend more time in the observation phase of OODA. The most fundamental thing is that people listen to others and understand enough about the team’s collective efforts that they can identify and support important contributions. When individuals can measure effort, value and impact, they can time their contributions better.
Executing: reduce friction
Countless minor incidents combine to lower performance. Friction is the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.
Reducing friction can take long. Instead, lubricants can be used: apologising/accepting blame for a mistake, acknowledging facts, making changes that demonstrate willingness to address a problem, giving credit where its due, downplaying mistakes others make.
Too much friction is bad, but too little is also a problem (can lead to hunting).
Executing: maintain momentum
Critical mass is enough momentum for an activity to be self-sustaining. To reach this state, considerable effort and resources must be placed, esp. if there’s resistance.
The most important element of momentum is regularity. People are drawn to the predictability of regular cycles (see “entrainment”, ie. two or more interacting oscillating systems falling into the same period). There are four elements that leverage people affinity to regular cycles:
Form: Most activities that require commitment to a goal have a form or structure (examples in p.199). People use the predictability of the form to set goals, time deliveries and shape contributions. It helps coordinate efforts and increase synergy. It’s important to use a form appropriate for the situation (not too many/few checkpoints).
Tempo: Overall pace. If there are three months to release a feature, but the estimation was six, the team’s ability to adapt depends on their freedom to set their goals (like dropping parts or reducing performance). When setting a tempo, take into account the goals, abilities of individual team members and the flexibility of their processes.
Pulse: Like a heartbeat. It’s a constant event that drives and helps the team keep in sync with the tempo. It’s always a function of the tempo.
Groove: A function of the pulse. Set of essential, fundamental activities that are repeated with respect to the pulse (examples in p.207-209). It invites people to participate and align their contributions with it. It’s most effective when simple and clear to everyone.
In software, a project manager may set all four (esp. the first two), and component team leaders define specific grooves inside their own teams.
Looking ahead for potential issues and addressing them before they become problems helps avoiding losing momentum, but strike a balance between planning and reacting. Other advice: (1) add weight to a contribution to give it greater significance, esp. in slower tempos; and (2) prepare an important contribution with a preceding smaller contribution.
And this is all for the third part. The next will be the last one, and will cover the rest of “Executing”, and “Innovating”.
Jan 17, 2011
Working: build trust and respect
Trust and respect are binding agents that keep a team together and help it maintain strong and healthy relationships. The mutual dependence that binds a team together requires that each member trust the other members to do their parts. This trust gives them freedom to work, and this freedom is especially important if their approach to a task differs from that of others. When people make great efforts, deliver under bad conditions or excel, they generate respect, and feeling respected makes them correct mistakes and take extra steps for a stand-out work.
The book “The Speed of Trust” explores the idea that trust affects the speed and cost of operations: things move faster and costs are lower. In activities where time can be sacrificed, there are delays (and often increased costs). When time is fixed, quality may suffer.
One way to build trust is with transparency, indicating intentions and actions clearly. Trust and respect can only be built with genuine, uncompromised communication. People can’t trust if they don’t know the person or its contributions to the team, and they’re less likely to trust the team if they don’t know how it’s going. For the latter, collecting metrics is useful, but they aren’t enough for themselves for building trust and respect, so personal messages are needed too. And those have to be genuine: company-wide broadcasts are often ignored. Being straight and direct (Warren Buffet examples on p.64,65) is important. Don’t try to make the company look good or hide mistakes.
Building trust and respect is hard, but losing it is easy. To avoid losing it or to restore it, accept accountability for mistakes and make it a priority to correct them whenever possible. Failing to do so may make the problem bigger. When mistakes are unavoidable, communicate the circumstances clearly to all parties. Accepting responsibility is not just apologising, you must acknowledge your understanding of the problem and you role in it. The worst kind of mistake is when the person making it doesn’t realise or (even worse) pretends it didn’t happen.
Working: commit with passion
Companies wonder why their employees aren’t more committed, when they should wonder what they can do to achieve a higher level of commitment from their employees. Top-talented people often have strong motivation. One has to try not to undermine that motivation. Nobody likes to work for an underperforming team or a failing project. It’s easy to contribute when there’s high level of activity. If you make a mistake, you have the team to back you up (examples in p.73).
Often companies use artificial means to motivate employees: team-building and inspirational speeches. They may help in short-term but not solve underlying problems in a team. Actually they may frustrate people.
Essentials of execution (Intro to Collaborating)
Feedback loop is the process in which part of output is fed to the input. A positive feedback loop is self-reinforcing or synergistic. Another interesting phenomenon is “hunting” (oscillating indefinitely when trying to correct a mistake):
Hunting case 1: trying too hard. Being nervous or overconcentrated in a goal causes us to fail, because of overzealous correction. Solution: back off, relax, avoiding trying too hard.
Hunting case 2: reacting too slowly. When we take too long to react to feedback. When we react, the correction is not enough or valid.
The OODA loop was conceived by fighter pilot John Boyd: Observe (get data), Orient (analyse/synthesise it), Decide (determine course of action), Act (implement decision). He was convinced that success in dogfights came from superior decisions and executing them more quickly: the pilot that goes through OODA in the shortest time wins.
Blitzkrieg gave unit commanders more autonomy, improving agility. Instead of waiting for explicit orders, they knew the strategic intents and could use their creativity and initiative.
Collaborating: listen for change
The aim of observing is getting relevant data for decisions, and it begins with unimpeded field of view. We tend to limit ourselves (tunnel vision), must work on peripheral vision: beginning with the end in mind (example in p.105,106). To improve execution, expand your field of data, but learn how to filter the noise. Considerations for observing:
Cognitive biases. We see what we want to see (confirmation bias), avoid/discount information that contradicts our ideas (disconfirmation bias), pretend not to see things we rather not see (selection bias), interpret information to suit our needs (assimilation bias), take decisions based on previous experience that we don’t recall correctly (selective memory). These biases often result from cognitive dissonance, and aren’t only for individuals: groups can polarise (making more extreme decisions).
Thinking outside the box. We are encouraged to expect the unexpected: that is really about being agile enough to respond to unexpected problems.
One of the most important pieces of info in any situation is a score, a measure of how well you’re doing. Successful teams need to know how they’re doing, but beware of management by numbers (they should never be the only input for decision-making). The most important figures for management are unknown or unknowable. For a score to be useful, it must be consistent over time, everyone must agree that the score is useful and fair, limitations/caveats in it must be well documented, and the team must understand the relation between their efforts and the score.
Paths that lead to success change over time, keeping the same path is not good long-term.
And that’s it for now. Next part will cover the rest of “Collaborating” and part of “Executing”.
Jan 16, 2011
This is the first part of my summary of the book “The Jazz Process” by Adrian Cho (official website, Goodreads page), about high-performance teams. EDIT: see parts two, three and four. It has examples and stories from jazz, basketball, the military, and others. The book is divided into five sections: introduction, working, collaborating, executing and innovating. Each section except the introduction has a series of “rules” that comprise the Jazz process.
This first part of the summary will cover the introduction and the first half of “Working”. Also, as this book has so many interesting quotes, I’m going to use some of them in this summary. They’re not part of the summary strictly speaking, so you can just skip them if you want.
I used to think that running an organisation was equivalent to conducting a symphony orchestra. But I don't think that's quite it; it's more like jazz. There is more improvisation. Someone once wrote that the sound of surprise is jazz, and if there's one thing that we must try to get used to in this world, it's surprise and the unexpected. In this world of chaos, there's no other way of doing things. Truly, we are living in a world where the only thing that's constant is change. > > Warren Bennis > >
The model of management that we have right now is the opera. The conductor of the opera has a very large number of different groups that he has to pull together. The soloists, the chorus, the ballet, the orchestra, all have to come together—but they have a common score. What we are increasingly talking about today are diversified groups that have to write the score while they perform. What you need now is a good jazz group. > > Peter Drucker > >
People miss two things about jazz improvisation: it’s based on years of training and experience (it’s not just “making things up”) and the greater goal is to create something unique (innovate). This quest for innovation is always balanced against their responsibilities, like supporting the other musicians. The skill of improvisation should be as highly prized in business as in jazz. More than ever, responding to the unexpected is important.
[Talking about basketball and jazz] the team's performance emerges from a chain reaction of individual acts. So much of what makes jazz great is the unique chemistry among individual players [...] > > R. Keith Sawyer > >
And if you want to have a really good jazz group, how large can it be? [...] You can use seven to nine people—maximum. If you get more, you have to score. > > Peter Drucker > >
Big groups make it hard to express yourself without appearing obviously non-conforming.
Working: use just enough rules
To maximise performance, you need just enough rules to afford autonomy, while avoiding chaos. Autonomy is the independence and freedom that enables people to act individually. It facilitates agility as it limits constraints. Individual expression is essential to improvisation and innovation. The goal when defining a process is allowing the team to be agile and innovative, while addressing the success factors of the team’s business.
Rarely a single set of rules apply equally to every situation and for every person. The exact set of rules or the importance of each one will vary over time (example in p.25). Thus, process improvement is critical to long-term success.
If there’s a strict rule, people must have a very good reason to break it. But more important is understanding the implications of doing it: breaking the rule might not be a problem, but not knowing that you’re doing it or not being able to explain the need to do it, probably is. If a rule is consistently broken, maybe it should be a convention instead. If on top of that, breaking it doesn’t cause problems, maybe it should be removed.
Working: employ top talent
Experienced and skilled people can adapt to almost any situation, even in new teams. Established but fundamentally weak teams can be good in a given setting, but in front of the unexpected the weaknesses will be revealed.
Duke Ellington wrote his pieces for concrete players, not for “Trumpet 1” and “Trumpet 2”. Same with Shakespeare. They considered the unique strengths of the performers and wrote parts featuring their greatest talents. The individualism of the musicians, channelled through Duke Ellington is what give greatness and uniqueness to the composition.
Individuality is about self-expression and creativity, but also about playing a unique part without backup. The team is as strong as the weakest link.
One of the most important skills of highly effective people is their ability to allocate a good portion of their personal bandwidth to collaboration. Inventors rarely make discoveries in isolation. The more proficient we are at our routine tasks, the more aware we are of our surroundings.
When building a team, quality over quantity. In lean teams, the problem is that there’s no redundancy, each member is a more critical resource.
Working: put the team first
In jazz, the musicians are accountable not only to the leader of the group, but to every person in the group and to the ensemble as a whole > > Adrian Cho > >
When a team has many strong individuals, each with distinctly specialised skills and experience, cross-fertilisation among individuals can unify the team. Special forces team members usually have a core speciality, but everyone in the team knows something about everyone else’s expertise. It’s the job of each specialist to conduct the training. This approach can both generate respect between team members and build redundancy that increases the robustness of the team.
The ability of every individual in the team to put the team first is often tested in a time of crisis (examples in p.50). The ability to absorb mistakes is one of the most important capabilities of an effective team: it succeeds and takes credit together, or fails and takes the blame together. No group ever becomes a team until it can hold itself accountable as a team. Another way to demonstrate cohesiveness is through willingness to tackle a challenge or traverse a risky path.
One potential problem of putting the team first is groupthink: abandoning individual creativity and critical thinking. The team may thus fail to innovate. This may be exacerbated by the tendency to self-select like-minded people and get rid of those who don’t think like the team. Ensure that people always feel empowered to speak out.
It's the group sound that's important, even when you're playing a solo. You not only have to know your own instrument, you must know the others and how to back them up at all times. That's jazz. > > Oscar Peterson > >
Focusing on the team helps people recognise the value of everyone’s contributions. It’s important that leaders and stars that get the praise acknowledge the contributions of colleagues. Acknowledging everyday heroes builds trust and empowers every member of the team to achieve higher levels of performance.
When a high-performance team exists within larger teams or organisations that are less productive, there’s the danger of tension. Putting the team first is not just for the immediate team, but for the larger organisation.
Nobody in the SAS [Special Air Service] looks down on any other unit of the army as being less important; no regiment in the entire army is so well aware of the essential attributes of what are often dismissed contemptuously as "administrative" troops. The SAS man, the fighting soldier par excellence, suffers from no delusions about his own importance. He knows his role is vital but he knows that a cipher clerk, or a cartographer, or even the skill of the opposing general's cook, may in fact be more important to the success of the campaign than quite a number of daring soldiers. > > Philip Warner > >
Dec 14, 2010
This is the fifth (and final) part of my summary of the book “Ending Slavery” by Kevin Bales. You can read the first, second, third and fourth parts in this same blog. This fifth part will cover the chapters “Ending the (product) chain”, “Ending poverty to end slavery to end poverty to end slavery”, the coda and the appendix.
Ending the (product) chain
A lot of the commodities and products we buy have a little bit of slavery in them (documented cases: food, cotton, iron, steel, gold, diamonds, shoes & clothing, fireworks, rugs and carpets, bricks…). The problem is, it’s almost impossible to know which shirt or chocolate bar brings slavery into our home. Our first reaction might be boycott, but they can hurt the innocent more than the guilty: poor farmers have to fight against subsidised farmers and with their neighbours using slaves. If consumers also turn against the poor farmers not using slaves, the result can be even more slaves. This is a problem that can’t normally be fixed at the point of purchase. The point to stop slavery is where it’s happening.
Companies that use slave material always give excuses to not fight slavery. Already in 1850, the American slave cotton industry said it wasn’t illegal (not valid now), that they didn’t have the responsibility of making rules or act like police in a foreign country, and if they didn’t, their competitors would and they would be driven out of business.
When a law was going to be passed to require chocolate companies to have a slave-free label (in 2001), they were alarmed because no one could figure out a way to prove that some cocoa was slave-free. So the companies started lobbying against the law, pointing to the impossibility to find enough cocoa that could be guaranteed to be slave-free, so there was a compromise: the law would not be passed if the companies agreed to work with labour and anti-slavery groups to remove slavery from their product chain (the “Harkin-Engel protocol”). Three crucial action points:
A binding memorandum was signed by all stakeholders to agree on and setup a plan forward.
Create a joint international foundation paid by the companies but run by a mixture of businesses, human rights groups and unions. They would do the research and run projects to take child labour and slavery out of the cocoa production.
Put in place a “credible, mutually acceptable, voluntary, industry-wide standard of public certification, consistent with federal law” that cocoa wasn’t grown with child- or slave-labour.
The protocol was a historic document, the first “treaty” between an industry and anti-child-labour and anti-slavery movements. And it was quite precise in the plan of action, but not everything went to plan. The two biggest problems were:
The survey of the farms was carried out by an organisation specialised in African agriculture, but didn’t know about slavery, hence it didn’t ask the right questions.
Underestimating what it would take to mount a “credible, mutually acceptable […]” by 2005. What makes it “credible”, who issues the “certificate”, and what does it certify? Plus the monitoring takes place within sovereign countries.
However, the protocol shows an important new way consumers and businesses can take part in eradicating slavery. It also showed how two US politicians could use pressure so fight slavery around the world.
Another example of “slave-free” mark is the RUGMARK system. Although proving that a particular rug without the mark has been indeed made by slaves is normally impossible, strong circumstantial evidence exists given the large number of enslaved workers. Also, RUGMARK and other anti-slavery groups have been very active publishing the facts of child slavery so few retailers could be ignorant of the strong possibility that they’re dealing with slave goods.
Ending poverty to end slavery to end poverty to end slavery
If we haven’t had great human or economic progress in 50 years, doesn’t fighting slavery make things harder? New research suggests than development is taking so long because we haven’t tackled slavery. Ending slavery might be one of the best weapons to fight poverty.
Robert Smith has studied why some poor countries have made much progress and others haven’t. He divided 139 countries into regional groups and measured development with UN’s Human Development Index (HDI), and included slavery and human trafficking, making the first large-scale study of modern development. The amount of slavery is what better explains the differences between countries, more than level of democracy, national debt, civil conflict or corruption. The analysis shows that in poor areas, slavery is the worst enemy of growth and living a decent life, not just for slaves but for everyone. Slavery is a major cause of depressed economies, low literacy levels and shorter lifespans for all citizens.
Combating poverty helps to end slavery, and viceversa. Ending slavery can have a significant impact on poverty (both for slaves and non-slaves). A great deal of thought and resources go to end poverty, rather less for slavery. What is clear is that these goals should go together, as the combined strength is greater than the sum of parts.
Coda: What you can do to end slavery
The cost of flying someone to help in a poor country would pay a full-time salary of an anti-slavery worker for a year. The most effective way to combat slavery is joining an organisation like FreeTheSlaves and give $10/month. Anti-slavery workers have enough to worry, they should be certain about funds. Although large donations are welcome, what the anti-slavery movement needs is small, regular donations.
Raising awareness about slavery is really easy: there are good books, films, web sites and blogs introducing people to slavery. For example, “How to combat modern slavery”, the TED talk that made me interested in the topic in the first place, or the video page in freetheslaves.net.
Appendix: Measuring the effectiveness of anti-slavery work
Characteristics of successful programs:
Flexibility to adapt to the local context, with programs that change yearly.
Evidence of leadership and problem solving ability within front-line workers.
A range of local, independent programs rooted in the affected communities. Those are better than large, multiregional programs.
Programs with secure financial base: multiple funders and multiyear funding (even if the funding is not large).
And this is, finally, the end of the (very long) summary. I hope you liked it :-)
Dec 13, 2010
This is the fourth part of my summary of the book “Ending Slavery” by Kevin Bales. You can read the first, second and third parts in this same blog. This fourth part will cover the chapter “Global problem, global reach”.
Global problem, global reach
Slavery is global. Need to find a how to use global organisations to fight it. This chapter is about how groups like the UN, WTO and World Bank can help.
The United Nations
The Slavery Convention was created in 1926. It is important because it was the first time the world agreed officially that slavery must end and in even tried to define it. It was important in three ways: (1) it set the moral position, (2) it was the first global treaty to ban slavery and (3) it addressed slavery “in all its forms”. However, it wasn’t such a practical instrument to end slavery.
The International Labour Organisation was established in 1919. It 1998 it issued the Declaration of the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. This opened the door for Anti-Slavery International to lobby and in 2001 the ILO Special Action Program to Combat Forced Labour was created. An in-depth investigation was undertaken, which resulted in a global report in 2005 that helped bring the subject to the notice of governments. This research is so clearly documented that it can be repeated in a few years to compare. Because incredibly, no one knows if slavery is growing or shrinking, or how many slaves are men, women or children.
One of the reasons the UN and ILO don’t do more against slavery is that they’re completely dependent on its member nations. The UN is anything but democratic, because one primary body exercises the most control: the Security Council. It has five permanent members (Great Britain, France, Russia, China and the United States) and 10 rolling members elected on a rolling basis, allowed to participate for two years but not be re-elected. The General Assembly can recommend, but only the Security Council can decide. The five permanent members have veto power. Two examples:
Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). Two countries failed to vote for it: Somalia, which didn’t have a functioning government that could vote for anything) and the US, which in part argued that it would ban 17-year-olds from military service.
International Criminal Court, an idea first explored in 1946. Idea: court where individuals could bring cases of fundamental human right violations when their national courts were unwilling/unable to give them a hearing. The US is now its most vigorous enemy. It joined six other countries (Iraq, Israel, China, Yemen, Libya and Qatar) to vote against it. As countries began to ratify the convention, the US bullied them shamelessly, threatening to pull foreign aid, credits, education grants, unless they promised the US a special exemption from the court’s jurisdiction (see p. 150 for references).
The UN can play a role no other can perform, but the cooperation of the Security Council is needed. That doesn’t need to be complex or difficult, and can be broken into clear and easy steps. It starts with the appointment of a special representative of the secretary-general on slavery. One of its main products is an in-depth report that assesses a problem and gives specific recommendations for addressing it. A special representative on slavery would not be revolutionary, and one is needed for two reasons:
the UN work on slavery is piecemeal and uncoordinated: he could resolve the different conventions since 1926 into a coherent single statement (slavery is one of the few crimes with “jus cogens” status, meaning all countries agree it’s illegal everywhere, all the time and no country is allowed to make it legal)
The UN needs a much more robust response to slavery (the Security Council passed a resolution in 2005 on children and armed conflict, but the only actions were monitor and report). It could be achieved by the Special Representative organising a Security Council meeting about slavery. This meeting would have 4 objectives:
1. Make it clear the UN is serious about it 2. Demonstrate that the Security Council supports the work of the Special Representative and the secretary-general 3. Make the Security Council set up a small group of experts to review all existing UN conventions 4. Make the Security Council establish a commission to determine how the existing UN inspection mandate could be extended to slavery (the inspection mandate is what made the UN look for weapons in Iraq and ultimately punish when there wasn't cooperation; see p. 153-155).
Other ways in which the UN can help (p. 156):
Bread: although the food the WFP (World Food Programme) delivers is sometimes the difference between life and death, dropping large amounts of free food in a weak economy can threaten the viability of local agriculture, increasing poverty and vulnerability to exploitation. It has its uses though: free lunches in a local school quells the hunger that pushes many parents to give their children for promises of jobs, it draws children to school where they get education and helps them crawl out of poverty, and it’s much more likely that teachers come every day. The UN food programme knows how to get food to the people who need it. Only two steps are needed to make it fight slavery as well: (1) build awareness of slavery into its planning, and (2) make sure it has the resources to assemble a special unit that searches out and attacks slavery through food aid.
Pills: when slaves come to freedom, one of the first things they need is medical care for their children and themselves. If the World Health Organisation incorporates slavery, when health workers find slaves they will recognise them and liberation will be hastened. Medical care for them will improve their chances of staying out. This is just adding slavery sensitivity, like when gender sensitivity was added as part of UN policies.
Guns: if a UN peacekeeper force can open the door, other UN agencies can bring the food, education and medical care that ensures lasting freedom.
Roses: UNESCO has the kind of global reach for a campaign to end slavery. Its programs filter into schools.
Satellites: slavery is often hidden in unmapped areas, but they’re hard to hide from satellites, especially as usually they destroy the environment and those scars are visible.
The World Bank
The World Bank, by its own definition, focuses on ending poverty. A lot of money goes to projects in developing countries, but a lot of money comes back as repayments and interest.
The World Bank could add anti-slavery requirements to the list of requirements that governments have to meet to get funding for specific projects. They have already announced that the Bank won’t approve any loan that undermines human rights, but they have to go further and be more specific.
And that’s it for now. The next (and last!) post will cover chapters “Ending the (product) chain”, “Ending poverty to end slavery to end poverty to end slavery”, the coda and the appendix.
Dec 12, 2010
This chapter bashes Japan big time. I’m not sure how much of it I should buy, but I can’t think of a reason why the author should be so biased against the country either.
It is surprising that there are so many slaves in modern, hightly educated, economically prosperous Japan. That there have been so many women imported for years with the support of the government is even more surprising until you have a look at Japanese culture.
The sex business is changing from old-fashioned brothels, strip clubs and others (with high overhead, meaning customers have to pay $300-$500 for sex) to “fashion massage shops”, staffed by heavily exploited foreign workers ($50-$90 for sex). Down the ladder, sex with foreign women on the street is $8-$10. All this is known as the “entertainment industry” in Japan. And prostitution is actually not legal in Japan, but its definition is only intravaginal heterosexual acts: anything else is legal and not regulated. Also, the law punishes solicitation (prostitutes are arrested and punished).
The Japanese government does a lot about illegal sex trade. To support it. For 20 years there has been a special kind of visa: the “entertainer visa”. Presumably it’s for singers/dancers, but then Japan has more than any country in the world (see graph on p. 109). What other country loves music so much that they need 133,103 singers/dancers in a single year? For a country that donates relatively large sums of money to combat poverty and disease around the world, being exposed like this was humiliating. The response was a lot of talk and an “action plan” with very little action, resulting in an increase from 6 to 25 victims found and protected. If there are tens of thousands of slaves in Japan, the government has only managed to find less than 1%. This could be expected in poor and rural countries, but Japan may be the best policed democracy in the world.
They use the kōban system, a one-room mini-police station with a territory of 1/5 of a square mile, an area most people would consider their neighbourhood. The police basically knows everyone and their business, very little happens without the police knowing. Comment: If I’m to believe Wikipedia, there are around 6,000 kōban and 127 million people in Japan. That’d mean more than 20,000 people per k_ō_ban?? Can they really know everything that is happening?. This police returns women, that came to seek help, to the traffickers. For women who are working in remote areas of Japan, it’s almost impossible to escape. Something is wrong if victims fear the police, crime is pervasive and officially ignored, and the flow of victims is increasing.
To fully understand slavery in Japan, one has to study racism in the country. No law prohibits racial discrimination. Comment: I found anecdotal evidence that Japan might have _racism _issues, but it might also be just cultural differences misinterpreted. Outside of many public places you can find signs which deny admittance to non-Japanese. There is a general view that women are inferior. Question: American prejudice? I found anecdotal evidence that it might be the case, that differences between men and women are not bigger than in the US. Domestic violence is an unmeasured ugly current. there was no clear law against it until 2002, and police routinely ignores assaults by husbands. Question: no references of this? that’s quite a bold statement without references! When meeting the NGO workers in Japan, the author was told they felt fighting not just criminals but the entire structure of government and culture.
Within four months of entering office, Lula set up a National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labour as a permanent part of the government. Perhaps for the first time in history, a government proceeded in the right way, making sure everything was in place before taking action. The plan had some excellent ideas: the law against slavery would be tightened and the penalties increased. One of the strongest new proposals was very radical: expropriation without compensation of land belonging to slaveholders. It was suggested to distribute the land to poor, land-less workers to avoid re-enslavement (up to 40% of people freed had been freed more than once, pointing to a cycle of poverty, economic crisis and enslavement). The plan also established a “dirty list” of companies and people that used slave labour. Those on the list would be excluded from receiving funds, grants or credits from the government. Since much of the process of opening or developing land relies on government tax credits or supports, they would be driven out of business.
The plan achieved immediate and dramatic results. In 2003 the number of freed slave more than doubled, to 4,879. There was some fight back, and in 2004 three officials from the labour ministry and their driver were murdered while investigating farms.
There may be no country in the world doing a better job, but it wasn’t perfect. More than 600 rural landlords were caught with slaves, but none went to prison, no property confiscated, and many continued their activities. The government needs to make the number of prosecutions, convictions and punishments public: transparency would help the public understand the tremendous task and potential for historic achievement. The UN has been critical with this lack of transparency and has pointed out the discrepancy between the number of freed slaves and the convictions.
Farms, mines and companies on the dirty list feed a supply chain that flows to US importers and customers. We need to face that we’re part of the process and we as consumers must ask companies to examine their supply chains. Cutting the demand for slave-made products is important, but there are a lot of steps in the supply chain. It’s much more effective to make sure that the Brazilian Special Mobile Inspection Groups, anti-slavery squads, etc. have the money they need to get their job done. The debt that Brazil services every year accounts for millions and it could be better spent on important programs like education and anti-slavery work that would stimulate the economy. Given that the US economy benefits from slavery in Brazil, it seems fair to give some back in the form of debt forgiveness.
What governments can do to end slavery
Nearly every country in the world needs its unique set of responses to slavery. There are many common elements, but the mix varies per country. In rich countries it’s just a matter of priorities and resources. For all other countries, there are key foundation blocks:
Stop looking for the quick fix. Slavery is obviously a legal problem, but it’s also economic development, migration, gender discrimination, ethnic prejudice, corruption and political will. No quick fix, like busting up brothels, buying people out of slavery or passing laws (without making sure they’re enforced) will eliminate slavery.
Focus on outcomes.
Build a robust legal response. Once a clear picture of trafficking and enslavement is available, a country can build a legal response that deals with the crime. Some countries/languages have a special name for ex-slaves and an informal apartheid system that keeps them powerless. The law that decriminalises victims has to be explicit in that the consent of the victim is irrelevant. International law is clear that people can’t legally hand themselves over to slavery.
Build a dedicated law enforcement team.
Protect and support freed slaves. This help/support should be given no matter where the freed slave has come from.
Raise awareness and promote prevention. Governments can increase public awareness of slavery and trafficking like public health: with advertising and education campaigns. These should also be public awareness campaigns aimed at potential victims of enslavement. Many ex-slaves say they didn’t know their enslavement was illegal until their liberators told them.
Use diplomacy, trade and foreign aid to end slavery.
Call out the army (and navy and air force).
And that’s it for now. The next post will cover chapter “Global problem, global reach”.
Dec 9, 2010
This is the second part of my summary of “Ending Slavery”, by Kevin Bales. You can read the first part in this same blog. This second part will cover chapters “Rescuing slaves today” and ”Home-grown freedom”.
Rescuing slaves today
In one of the rescue stories, children have been told by their holders that they need to hide when the police comes, because they’ll hurt or kill them, and they have come to believe it. When trying to free them, children freeze when grabbed by the strangers that storm in. Others hide and others scream and fight their rescuers. Police is unhelpful, and when told to arrest the slaveholders, they turn their heads away: they’re not going to get into trouble with the rich men that run the village.
Once the 12-minute raid is over, the slaveholders send messages to the police so they stall or obstruct the rescue plan. As soon as the report is filed, it can be freely accessed, including the slaveholder or his lawyer. Names of the person filing, the ex-slave, his parents, their location or villages they come from are all here. While the police drag their feet, the slaveholders intimidate or bribe witnesses, manufacture evidence, etc. Every report filed can lead to a case lasting 3 years on average, sometimes much longer. Only the person filing is allowed to bring it forward. If anything happens to that person, the case dies.
Money alone won’t solve the problem. Have to change laws, minds, customs and ways of making business. There are six things that will help liberators:
Protect the liberators, e.g. making them “public figures”. That way it’s harder to attack them.
Give them tools to do their job. Cell phones and jeeps could help a lot. In some cases they go to remote rural areas by bike. Schools can keep children out of slavery, and you can keep one for less than $5000/year. The end of slavery partly depends on these small expenditures.
Write and enforce effective antislavery laws. They typically have small penalties (considering it’s usually kidnapping, torture, theft, assault and often rape all combined in one).
Train, motivate and mobilize law enforcement. There are around the same number of murders in the US than people trafficked, but while more than 12/17 thousand murders will be cleared, only over 100 trafficking cases are brought to court.
“Clone” the liberators. More will come as people learn about slavery in their own countries.
Help freed slaves heal so the liberators have time and energy to free other slaves.
Apart from this, there are other things. When liberators are asked, they often reply with big picture factors apart from local conditions. However, there are now hundreds of thousands waiting to be freed, and they must be freed. They are dying now.
There are areas where only slaves live. The Kols (near India’s bottom of the caste ladder) in an area called Sonebarsa, are all slaves in hereditary bondage. Most of them don’t know what freedom means: they require permission to sit, move around, eat or drink. For these people, the breakthrough came in 1998, with the question “why don’t we get our own mining lease?”. After months waiting for the lease, the slaveholders discovered what they were doing and they were thrown out. They didn’t have a place to stay or anything to eat, and they had to survive by eating weeds and roots, not knowing if they would get the lease. When they got it after all, their productivity shot up, they put their kids in school, and local tax officials were shocked because they started getting money.
People in rich countries may feel they don’t have much to learn from poor countries, and that might be one of our greatest failings. Ex-slaves have a remarkable dignity and lack of bitterness: they seem too busy with their new freedoms to hate anybody. It’s easy to see slaves as victims, helpless and dependent, but that misses their resilience, strength, endurance, intelligence and compassion.
When fighting to end slavery, it doesn’t make sense that a rich foreigner tells a family that the children can’t work on the farm anymore if that means that the family income will drop to the point that the children will start to go hungry. Real change has to come from the community. As this is a global problem, using the power of governments sounds like the way to go, but the most efficient engine for freeing up slaves and keep them free is when a community makes the concious decision to do just that. More slaves are freed by community organisation than in any other way. They’re also freed more efficiently and their freedom is more permanent.
To help these communities, there are six points (compare to the above for liberators):
Thinking and being free. When they make the concious decision, their freedom is more durable. To stay free, people need mental tools to endure the change and money to survive while they get a new source of income.
One size does not fit all. The things that stop people from leaving slavery can be surprising. For example, there was an elderly couple afraid for their hut. When shown a new place where they could safely build a new one, their intense desire for freedom took over. There are obstacles that might be invisible to our eyes. Another way to get insight into their lives is creating useful services, so slaves gain trust in the antislavery workers by showing they’re really interested in their well-being.
“Clone” the liberators (again). To get to know and gain trust of communities in slavery, people leaving in remote, dangerous areas are needed. Finding those people is challenging. Make it easy for people who want, to actually move.
Prepare for the backslash. Decide the risk together with communities, and if it’s worth it. Slaveholders will react, the question is how to mitigate. Everyone involved has to understand the dangers and prepare for them.
Plan for the worst. When houses start burning, what to do? When people are homeless, where are they going to live? Forging connections with powerful people that will protect slaves. The presence of foreign observers has saves lives many times.
We all go together. Slaves are not free from prejudices themselves. The first step to freedom is getting women to come together and resist violence in their own homes. Experience the power of resisting violence and learning the right to feel safe. Give confidence to protect themselves and children from trafficking.
A community of ex-slaves will need this to stay free:
Immediate access to paid work. The sooner they work, the sooner stability arrives.
A chance to build up savings. Slavery is often the result of not having a fall-back for a crisis.
Access to basic services, like schools and clinics. Having clean water can save women and children hours a day, improving productivity. Planning for freedom implies asking men and women which services there are and what they need.
Working with the earth. Slaves often work destroying environment. This destruction impacts poor people the most, and leads them to slavery. Sustained freedom means sustainable environment as well. Seeds and a hoe can make a big difference.
What funders and anti-slavery groups need to work well together:
Reliable funding. Normally no large sums are needed, just a steady flow. For many, liberation takes time. People in slavery has a lot of insecurity, so antislavery groups must be reliable. They can’t run out of money in the middle of a liberation. More important than size of gift is regularity.
Flexibility. Need to listen to slave communities, and be responsive to those needs. If that means changing from health care to micro-credits, so be it. The goal is freedom, not a “successful” project that doesn’t get freedom.
Assembling the toolkit. Antislavery groups need a good understanding of and ability to use any antislavery tools and laws at their disposal. Building that expertise needs support.
Critical thinking and funding. Local antislavery groups need to think critically to get the job done. Need to identify what blocks freedom and go for it. It’s harder than it sounds when they’re stuck in a village and the funder has rules about what they support and how they fund it. If there’s not a category for what they really need, it’s tempting to go for something else they know they can get. The challenge is increasing understanding and trust between the workers on the ground and the funders.
People in slavery know best what they need to reach freedom. Outsiders can share ideas, protection and resources, but the solution has to convince and be owned by the people fighting to leave slavery.
No matter what laws are passed or what UN resolutions promulgated, slavery ends when the community decides to and takes action. Slavery is woven into the fabric of life at our neighbourhoods, and has to be cut out of that fabric by those who understand where the threads are hidden and how they’re knotted with corruption, indifference, racism of greet.
And that’s all for now. The next post will cover the “Governments” chapter.
Dec 9, 2010
Ending Slavery is a book about modern slavery and the possibility of ending slavery forever. It defines slavery, shows that there is still a lot in this world, explains how it works, why it still exists, why people end up in slavery, and finally it describes a plan to end it once and for all. It’s a very good book, although sometimes I wished that there were less “stories” and more “information”. That said, the summary ended up being huge, especially for a relatively small book (250 pages).
This first post will cover the introduction, and the chapters “The Challenge” and “Building the Plan”. Other posts will cover “Rescuing slaves today”, “Home-grown freedom”, “Governments”, “Global problem, global reach”, “Ending the product chain”, “Ending poverty to end slavery to end poverty to end slavery” and the coda and appendix.
5000 years of slavery can end forever, as well as 200 years of pretending we don’t have slavery. We just need a plan, and this book helps in laying it out. Freedom is not just possible, it’s inevitable, for the seed of freedom grows and grows. Our job is to nourish those seeds.
It used to be clear for everyone what slavery was. It was defined and protected by law. When it became illegal, many people thought it was over, and it became less clear what slavery is. In essence, slavery it controlling people through violence and using them to earn money. It doesn’t depend on the duration.
In modern times, slaves are cheap and disposable. Three factors after World War II led to resurgence of slavery:
World population explosion: from 2 to over 6 billion people in about 50 years, most in the developing world.
Dramatic social and economic changes. As colonies gained independence, they opened to western businesses. In that process, the poor were left behind and they had even less opportunities and resources. If we compare poverty and slavery levels, the pattern is obvious.
Police corruption, In rich countries there’s slavery in spite of the police. In many other countries it flourishes because of it. If the policeman salary is $10/$20 a month, getting $100 extra a month is the difference between being able to feed your children and have electricity or not. Question: how was “corruption” measured?
Looking at everything supporting slavery, it’s discouraging: world poverty, corruption, greed, population explosion, environmental destruction, armed conflicts that impoverishes countries, international debt, governments not applying laws. But not everything has to be done at once, and not everything has to be solved to end slavery. People in extreme poverty has fallen from 1.5 to 1.1 billion people (from 1981 to 2001) even with the world population increasing. Many changes are already taking place, just need a plan to support them.
Building the plan
When releasing slaves, freedom is the beginning, not the end (as in most of the challenges start then). The obvious thing when a slave is freed would be to consult the body of knowledge by doctors and psychologists, except it doesn’t exist. It’s being compiled now.
When freeing a slave making rugs, some questions point at us: who buys them? do the wholesale vendors know they’re profiting from slavery? how do we differentiate slave rugs from others? If we stopped buying rugs, would that help slaves? Ending slavery is solving a lot of puzzles. Did rich countries end slavery, or did they move it to other countries while keeping the benefits without the moral discomfort?
Key ingredients to end slavery:
Public awareness. We have three advantages over abolitionists in the past: (a) the moral argument is already won, (b) the monetary value of slavery is very small, it doesn’t threaten any country’s livelyhood, and (c) for the most part, laws are already in place. The missing link is governments enforcing laws: until it reaches the public agenda there will be slaves.
Education. Many slaves are tricked into it, violence only comes when it’s too late to escape. It’s an ancient method. Education is key to fight slavery, but we’re hardly taking advantage of it. There are large sums for teen pregnancy and drugs, but how much for slavery? Question: it that a good argument? Training is needed in law enforcement too. The US spends more than any other country in law enforcement, but it was only in 1998 that a human trafficking task force was created. It has started training police, but has been criticized for being low-priority and haphazard. Question: by whom?
Honest law enforcement. In poor countries, police not only needs training, but overhauls to remove corruption. If the pay is poor, they’ll find ways to make more cash. Corruption levels there now are similar to those in the US in the 19th century.
Economic support for anti-slavery workers.
Rehabilitation. Essential to sustained freedom. Some return to slavery by choice, because they only find insecurity. Without help to create a new life, people often can’t by themselves. When equipped with skills and education, ex-slaves are empowered and committed to end slavery, become village leaders, and are not afraid of confronting police. A single ex-slave can change a whole village.
The UN millennium development goal for 2015: provide every child in the world with basic education. That’d be around $28 billion, and while it sounds like a lot that’s what Michigan charities spend a year, the personal wealth of IKEA’s owner, or what Philip-Morris had to pay a single person who sued them.
There are other costs: anticorruption campaigns, debt reduction, police training, rehabilitation, training/paying anti-slavers workers. But in the end, there’s profit in ending slavery.
And that’s it for now. The next post will cover ”Rescuing slaves today” and “Home-grown freedom”.
Oct 12, 2010
And this is the last past of the summary of “Storytelling for UX” (first part, second part). In this last part I’ll cover the tips to create stories. At the end I’ll do a mini-review of the book and will add some extra comments.
How to create a story_ _
Stories have four elements: audience, ingredients, structure and medium.
There are two important relationships in stories: story-audience and you-audience. About the first, you want to include details that fill the gap, and also stories are a good way to make the audience see a different perspective by feeling it. Finally, endings are important. They should be memorable and settled (“take them home”).
See checklist on p. 209.
Perspective. there isn’t a neutral POV in stories. Types of perspectives are realist (3rd person, “absent” author), confessional (focused on author experience) and impressionist (mixes descriptions of events with a strong structure). The last intends to spark ideas/actions and while they can have an ending, they might end with implicit question. An easy way to add perspective is letting the main character do the talking.
Characters. One of the reasons why UX stories are useful is because they add specificity and texture to the usually one-dimensional view of users. Also useful to highlight needs outside the mainstream. Tips to build characters: (1) choose (only) details that add meaning; (2) show, don’t tell (show in action instead of describing traits); (3) set up “hooks” that you can use later in the story; (4) leave room for imagination.
Context. Five types: physical (time, date, location, location scale), emotional (how characters feel), sensory (5 senses), historical (“when phones had dials”), memory (storyteller’s memory, flashbacks).
Imagery. Things that make us picture the story (example in p. 205). Don’t use too much!
Language. Tips: (a) speak in the language of the characters, (b) make the story active, (c) focus on telling the story, not describing, (d) don’t judge characters, context or events.
Structure is the framework/skeleton of the story. Plot is the arrangement of the events. Strong structures help the audience, the author and the story (p. 215). See types of stories on p. 216. “Checklist” for good structure and plot on p. 235.
Four big media: oral (mind the gap to written, p. 243), written (make the point explicit, keep it short, make use of cultural cues as in p. 253), visual (comics and storyboards work, see p. 258-260), multimedia/video.
See tips on how to integrate stories in reports on p. 265 and p. 266. See strong sides of different media on p. 272.
Mini-review and conclusions
I quite liked the book, although I admit that the last part (the one summarised in this post) was a bit disappointing. I guess it’s hard to give tips about something as complex as creating a story, in a book. The book has a very clear structure and it’s easy to follow and read, which helps in figuring out what to read, what to skim and what to leave for later.
Another thing that really struck me while reading the book (the second book I read following the tips from “How to Read a Book”) is how little I used to understand of the books I read. I now go through the book three times: one to get an idea of the structure and the most interesting parts, one to read the content, and one to review and make a summary. So even while I was reading it for the last time, I made sense of things that I hadn’t realised while reading the book (and that was after knowing the structure, knowing what to expect from each chapter, and having made some preliminary notes!). Not only that, but I also feel that I’m much more critical with what I read and I compare it much more with what I think myself.
If you aren’t doing it already, I strongly recommend that you give those tips a try…
Oct 11, 2010
This is the second (and longest) part of my summary of “Storytelling for UX” (see the first part). It will cover how to fit stories and storytelling into the UX design process.
There shouldn’t be “a storyteller” in the team, as many as possible should be familiar with the technique. Prototypes based on stories allow exploration of new ideas, esp. if they’re big changes.
There are several parts of the UX process were stories are useful:
Collecting input from users. You’re already hearing those stories. Do it consciously.
Exploring user research and other data. Summary of hard data.
Experimenting with design ideas. See stories that help launch a design discussion (type) and the role “spark new ideas”.
Testing designs. They can evaluate if you have stayed true to original needs and if they will work with real users.
Being in the user work environment helps noticing things people don’t mention. When you just arrive, everything is unfamiliar. Take notes then. If you can’t talk to your users, you can get some limited info from: search/server logs, customer service records, people who do training and sales demos, market research and satisfaction surveys.
Getting people in groups can help make people talk (build on each other). Also asking people to recall specific events is really useful.
Tip: be open to tangents, but don’t waste too much time in them if you don’t see value. Also, a user avoiding talking about what you want is information, too.
Tip: Use a structure for the interview (first closed questions, then open), see p. 82. Try to have the interview in the context the product will be used.
Characteristics of good stories:
Heard from more than one source
With action detail
Make user data easy to understand
Illustrate an aspect the UX team is interested in
Surprise or contradict common beliefs
They should help explain something about UX beyond data, bring data to life. They should also connect with other stories and resonate, leading to action.
Experimenting with design ideas
Three possible uses of stories: brainstorming, concept and specification. When no user research is available, you can brainstorm to create user stories. See a good technique/game for it on page 111.
When you do have user research, you can develop those stories. For that, some rules: (1) defer judgement, (2) encourage wild ideas and (3) build on the ideas of others. See adaptation of the game for this case, p. 118. Concept stories should include: (a) focus on activity set in a specific context, (b) description of motivations that trigger action, (c) describe the characters well enough to set them in context.
Specification stories are useful to summarise results. They are included in specs. They keep the real-world context available for reference.
Three uses of stories: create scenarios/tasks for usability testing, serve as guide for expert reviews, and quality testing.
If in usability testing you ask the user first what her interests are, you can turn that story into a usability test task.
Stories and personas from them are very useful to set a context for expert reviews. Give each expert a persona and make them try to complete a task from that persona POV.
[I didn’t really get the “quality testing” part, whatever that means, so I don’t have notes about it]
When communicating with people, stories get the audience attention, set context and inspire action.
Listening exercises make you understand your audience, and make them understand how diverse/similar they are.
There are three typical types of audiences:
Strategic leaders: generate and maintain a common vision (p. 143). Things that work for them: identify point of pain and offer a solution, identify gap in market and show how to fill, show new approach by reconfiguring common/existing components, and identify UX trends and show impact on business.
Managers: have a mission and have to make decisions (p. 146). Don’t have time to spare, prefer short meetings to brainstorming sessions. If you bring bad news, show why it’s important to care. Don’t go into much detail.
Technical experts: implement a vision (p. 149). Can be difficult to reach them with stories, esp. if not grounded in details. Tips: (a) use representative characters and situations and be ready to back up with hard data, (b) make the action of the story specific and tangible, (c) keep the story on track, (d) use technical terminology accurately.
And that was the end of this part of the summary. In the next and last post I’ll cover the tips about creating stories and will write some sort of mini-review and conclusions.
Oct 10, 2010
This is book is the first book chosen for Oslo’s UX book club. It was a quite interesting book about using stories and storytelling techniques in different steps of the User Experience design process. The following is the first part of my (long) summary of the book. The summary is mostly intended to remind me things I read, but probably/hopefully it will be interesting and useful to others. As the book is more or less divided in four parts (introduction, listening, how to fit stories in the process and how to create a story), I’ll cover the introduction and the notes on listening in this post, and will leave the other two parts to other posts. Edit: see parts two and three.
Introduction (chapters 1-2)
Stories help keeping people at the center (p. 2). There are different types of stories (p. 5):
Those that describe context/situation: describe the world today. Not only sequence of events, but also reasons and motivations.
Those that illustrate problems: show a problem that a new product or design change can fix. They should describe it in a way that opens the door for brainstorming.
Those that help launch a design discussion: starting point for a brainstorming session. Enough detail to make sense but leave room for the imagination.
Those that explore a design concept: explain/explore idea or concept and its implications for the experience. Helps shape the design by showing it in action.
Those that prescribe the result of a new design: describe the world as it will be in more detail. Similar to the 1st, but describe a user experience that doesn’t exist yet.
Interesting quote in page 10, with the message “until you hear a story, you can’t understand the experience”.
Stories are interactive, change with the audience (p. 14). They also not only describe actions, but add context and why (motivation). There is a fine line with how many detail to include in motivation, because of shared cultural understanding and other things (p. 17, 19).
Stories have different roles:
Explain: give context and sensory experience, not just events. This is different from use-cases.
Engage the imagination: surpass linear logic and evoke new ideas.
Spark new ideas: as we fill in the gaps, we can hint details but let people come up with their own ideas.
Create a shared understanding.
In any case, stories are not “made up”: they’re based on data.
Listening (chapter 3)
Really listening to users (e.g. in interviews and such) gives you access to a lot of info you can’t get anywhere else. Open questions are very important for this. Giving time to answer sometimes gives people time for second thoughts (not just what they think you want to hear), which has more value than the first reply. Also, pay attention to the context, people forget to mention “obvious” (for them) everyday facts.
Practising active listening is very important, see the following links:
And that’s it for the first part. Stay tuned for the rest of the summary.
Jul 17, 2010
I was recommended this book some time ago by a friend, and after checking the summary I added it to my list of book to read right away. This book is the first book I have tried to read using the “How to Read a Book” method, so take my opinion with an extra grain of salt: probably my experience reading it would have been very different if I had read it the usual way.
So, the executive summary would be that the ideas in the book are quite interesting, but it’s way too long and it’s often, in my opinion, annoying to read due to the author’s arrogance (you can probably imagine what I mean by looking at his website “Fooled By Randomness”).
The rest of this post is my random notes that sort of serve as a summary. They’re meant mostly for myself (or at least someone who has actually read the book) and probably fairly bad, but hey, it’s the first book I read like this, so bear with me. If you haven’t read the book and want to read them anyway, at least you have to know what a “Black Swan” is: it’s an event that it’s basically unpredictable, and changes the world in a substantial way. Just go to Wikipedia and check it out.
From page 8: History is opaque. Reasons:
Illusion of understanding: the world is more complex and random that everyone thinks.
Retrospective distortion: we assess matters after the fact and look for tidy, regular explanations.
Overvaluation of factual information and experts: we “Platonify” the world.
Page 12 (about the second point above): history makes jumps, not small increments of change. Yet we believe in nice, tidy, incremental changes.
Page 30: About scalable vs. non-scalable jobs (writer vs. nurse; getting paid for your time or not), “talent” comes from success, not the other way around.
Page 49: the book is not about avoiding risks, but about knowing which ones to take and know what we don’t know.
Page 50: Black Swan blindness, related themes:
We focus on preselected segments and generalise from them: confirmation error.
We believe in tidy explanations: the narrative fallacy.
We behave as if Black Swans don’t exist.
We don’t see all it’s there: we hide Black Swans under other explanations.
We “tunnel”: we focus on well-defined sources of information.
Page 58, about the “confirmation error” above. Experiment: given 2, 4 and 6, people are asked to guess the rule they follow. Each person can give any number of three-number series and the experimenters will say if the series follows the rule. In that experiment, people tend to first build a theory and then try to confirm it. So, most people never guess that it’s simply “ascending numbers”.
Page 71, about people behaving as if Black Swans didn’t exist: When you remember something, you change the story at each remembrance. We renarrate the past to make it “more logical”.
Page 114, about hiding Black Swans under other explanations: We don’t hear the stories of the non-successful, so the information we have comes mostly from the lucky ones.
Page 120, still about the same topic: When survival is in play, we look for cause and effect. We believe in the “because” and not in randomness. It may have been just luck, but we always try to find a cause.
Page 138 has a summary about chapter 10 (all notes up to and including page 158 belong to this chapter). There are two main topics in this chapter: (a) we are arrogant about what we think we know, and (b) that has implications when predicting. Why do we predict so much, even if we know we make so many mistakes?
Page 144. Ideas are sticky: once we have a theory, it’s hard to change our minds. We have trouble interpreting information that contradicts our opinions. Experiment with horse race prediction: knowing the 10 most useful variables, people predicted. Then, when given extra variables, the accuracy of predictions didn’t increase, but the confidence in the predictions did.
Page 151: When you predict wrong, you tend to think you couldn’t know because it was an aspect you don’t know that well (e.g. about predicting the fall of the Soviet Union when having an excellent knowledge of the political workings, one would think that it turned out to be economic reasons, so you couldn’t predict it).
Page 158: We anchor: when we see a number before a prediction, even if it’s random and we know it, we make predictions “close” to that number. This, by the way, I had read before, I think in “Predictably irrational”.
Page 203: Advice: be human, admit your arrogance and ignorance. Avoid large scale, harmful predictions.
Page 205: Advice: put 85-90% of your resources in something very low risk, and 10-15% in something very high risk. Avoid “medium risks”.
Page 207: Closing tricks:
Make a difference between positive and negative contingencies. When you have a limited loss, you have to be as aggressive, speculative and “unreasonable” as you can.
Don’t look for the precise and local. Don’t be narrow-minded. Do not try to predict precise Black Swans. Invest in preparedness, not prediction. Infinite vigilance is not possible.
Seize any opportunity, or anything that looks like one. They’re much rarer than people think.
Beware of precise plans by governments.
Do not waste time trying to fight forecasters.
In summary, I liked the ideas in the book, even if sometimes I wasn’t very convinced by the arguments or the evidence provided… and it was sort of boring to read at times.