Innumeracy revisited

Some months ago I wrote a short piece touching on innumeracy and promised to return to the theme later. By one of those strange, but probably predictable, coincidences, I was thinking about this again and low and behold there was an article in the Independent about a Government commissioned report into the state of mathematics in the UK. Again, quite predictably, the article began, “Next month a Government-commissioned inquiry into the state of mathematics in Britain will report that radical measures are needed to save the subject from slipping into terminal decline in schools and universities.” And, as you might expect, Professor Adrian Smith, the author of the report, said, “We need to make the material much more inspirational so that people want to study maths for longer than they do now.”
I would agree that we need to make the material more inspirational, but fear that, in practice, this would mean using more practical examples like changing money into foreign currencies. What might actually be inspirational would be to communicate the fact that mathematics gives us a different way of understanding the world. And, perhaps, as a kicker, that it can offer a means of uncovering some of the dirty little secrets that others use numbers to conceal from us.

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Creativity, the economy and politics

A post on Karen Mahony’s blog alerted me to an important article by Richard Florida, “Creative Class War” – there?s also a slightly different version, with a diagram, on one of his sites It gives you a whole different take on what is stake in the current US elections and has lessons for the rest of us where ever we are. Essentially the argument is that creative people are the key to economic prosperity and that the places and countries who can attract the mobile creatives are those that will do well. But as Karen points out the argument for individual creatives maybe different from that of cities and countries. As she points out, “If we really are moving more towards a “do it yourself” kind of cultural collage, then things are going to come out of the places that support small, free and inexpensive. Like Berlin. Like Prague. Like Yalta even?”

Echos of Purposive Drift

John Kay begins a long article in the FT Magazine by saying:
“If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in the other. Paradoxical as it sounds, goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. So the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented, and the happiest people are not those who make happiness their main aim. The name of this idea? Obliquity.”
He goes on to show how a narrowly goal orientated approach in areas as diverse as business, town planning and forest management is often less succesful than a broader, value based approach. He explains:
“Obliquity is relevant whenever complex systems evolve in an uncertain environment, and whenever the effect of our actions depends on the ways in which others respond to them. There is a role for carrots and sticks, but to rely on carrots and sticks alone is effective only when we employ donkeys and when goals are simple. Directness is appropriate. When the environment is stable, objectives are one dimensional and transparent, and it is possible to determine when and whether goals have been achieved. Obliquity is inevitable when the environment is complex and changing, purposes are multiple and conflicting, and when we cannot tell, even with hindsight, whether they have been fulfilled.”
It reminds me of one the original inspirations for Purposive Drift:
“The Japanese anthropologist, Tado Umesao, observes that historically the Japanese have always done better when they drifted in an empirical, practical fashion (‘ Even during the Meiji revolution, there were no clear goals; no one knew what was going to happen next’) than when they attempted to operate by ‘resolute purpose’ and ‘determined will’. This is true of other peoples, too, although Umesao believes what he calls ‘an esthetics of drift’ is distinctively Japanese and one of the major differences between Japanese and Western cultures. Had he been looking at Europe and America in the past rather than the present, he would have seen, I think, that ‘an esthetics of drift’ was distinctively Western too, and worked better for western cultures than ‘resolute purpose’ and ‘determined will’.
And a more recent node of support:
But the business culture typically worships drive — setting a goal, single-mindedly pursuing it, and plowing past obstacles. Are you arguing that, to be more lucky, we need to be less focused?
This is one of the most counterintuitive ideas. We are traditionally taught to be really focused, to be really driven, to try really hard at tasks. But in the real world, you’ve got opportunities all around you. And if you’re driven in one direction, you’re not going to spot the others. It’s about getting people to have various game plans running in their heads. Unlucky people, if they go to a party wanting to meet the love of their life, end up not meeting people who might become close friends or people who might help them in their careers. Being relaxed and open allows lucky people to see what’s around them and to maximize what’s around them.”

“Busy, busy, busy” as a Bokonist might say.

Sounding off

For years I have been telling students and any one else who would listen that they should explore the potential for the use of sound in interaction design or as I preferred to call it hypermedia. So I was pleased to see that at IVREA, this was becoming a focus of concern. As Molly Wright Steenson reported in a post on 9 December last year:
“I was talking to a group of second-year students here today about their thesis projects and realized that sound is becoming a major focus for interaction designers. Currently, several thesis projects are focusing on it and three from last year explored it to varying degrees: Dianna Miller?s Wrapt, Ryan Genz?s Embedded Theater and Line Ulrika Christiansen?s Re-Lounge.”
Back in 1996, when Bob Cotton, Malcolm Garrett, Cara Mannion, Christine Davis and I were working on “Understanding Hypermedia 2.000” I wrote:
“Every media element within hypermedia presents intriguing possibilities for development. But the issue of how we use sound maybe one of the most important factors in making hypermedia a truly distinctive medium, with unique characteristics and qualities. From Vannevar Bush onwards, one of hypermedia primary metaphors up until now has been print. As we learn to use sound more intelligently and more effectively this metaphor may breakdown. Already many of the other metaphors we use to describe the experience of using hypermedia are spatial. The increasing use of sound to create a sense of inclusive space, where we are within the experience rather than simply observing, may be a crucial element in establishing the new, more fruitful spatial metaphors that the medium demands.”
Maybe at last we are beginning to get there.

Lunch Table Project Teams

There is a good interview with Bill Joy in last month’s Wired. I latched on to it because one of his answers related to some of the stuff I was talking about in “Conversations and creativity”:
“I’ve always said that all successful systems were small systems initially. Great, world-changing things – Java, for instance – always start small. The ideal project is one where people don’t have meetings, they have lunch. The size of the team should be the size of the lunch table.”
I also liked some of the things he had to say about the possibilities for innovation, which relate to some of the things I discussed in “It’s hard to predict”
All in all, an interview worth reading and a man to keep an eye on.

An Open Source Campaign?

Sometimes I think I’m really slow on the uptake. Despite a number of signals I should have noted, I didn’t take much notice of Howard Dean’s run to be the Democrats’ Presidential Candidate. Maybe it was because I was looking for a winner and he looked like just another political maverick. Whatever the reason, the Dean campaign looks significant, even if he doesn’t get much further. What is significant about the campaign is that it looks as if it represents a shift away from the idea of politics as a subset of marketing to the idea of politics as if people matter. My sense is that this is a phenomenon that won?t go away. My evidence is in the links below:
The web’s candidate for President
Dean for America
Peer-to-Peer Politics
Why I’m for Dean
Voters Have Come Alive
Unelectable, My Ass!
A simple, poetic indictment
The Doctor Is In
The Great American Restoration
On the other hand maybe Michael Wolff is right and the very success of the campaign so far carries the seeds of its own destruction.
Whatever the outcome, this one is worth watching.

Conversations and creativity

I think I may have found a new role for myself as an “On-Line Vicarious Expediter and Responder”, an OLIVER – though I’m not sure I want to be a bit of software. The concept of the “Oliver” was developed by J.C.R.Licklider, who as well as being one of the early instigators of the internet, also “..foresaw knowbots and intelligent agents as he describe each network user having what he called an “Oliver.” The Oliver would be a set of programs that learns about its user, finds information on the networks for the user, and does various on-line chores.”
I came across this idea by accident in a vanity search – who would have thought there are so many Richard Olivers in the world – in a piece that had nothing to do with me or any other Richard Oliver. What made me read it was because I have long been interested Licklider, who is one of those people who have had an immense influence on our world, but is little known outside a small circle of people who are interested in such things.
The bit about “Olivers” amused me for obvious reasons. What I found still more interesting was an idea earlier in the essay where the author, Dr. Kenneth L. Hacker describes how Licklider, “… provided an early sociocognitive view of human communication which describes how each communicator in social interaction has mental models of conversation topics. Licklider noted that communication works best when the models become more similar. More importantly, he articulated a definition of communication as “cooperative modeling,” meaning that communication involves coordination and coactive building of a model that is shared and exists simultaneously with the individual communicators’ mental models.”

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