Towards the end of our first day

“Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited from outer space were trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a 24-hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. If the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering façade, and that have so far eluded us?”
Jared Diamond
(Thanks to Dave Pollard of “how to save the world” for the link)

Bold Ulysses

As a closet technophobe, I rarely write about specific bits of technology. The one exception I can think of was my lament for the passing of Bill Atkinson‘s Hypercard “Programming for the rest of us”. But the other day, after some slightly intrusive interruptions asking me if I wanted to update my version of Ulysses , I did and was struck by how much I enjoyed using this word processor. And then had the urge to share my enjoyment with others.
For many years I used to write with a very early version of Nisus. I migrated it from machine to machine. What I liked was that it felt very clean, didn’t get in my way, had some sophisticate search and replace features and produced very pure text, free from invisible garbage.
When I switched to Mac OSX, my friend Ben Copsey urged me to stop using applications that only ran in Classic mode. So, a bit reluctantly, I bought the latest version of Nisus. Like many improved bits of software I found it had lost some of the qualities that had made it so pleasant to use – particularly that hard to define, but easy to recognise, quality of being clean.
I experimented with a variety of word processors, but couldn’t find one to match my old version of Nisus. Among the ones I downloaded for a free trial was Ulysses. It wasn’t love at first sight. Ulysses looks and feels very different from any other word processor I have ever used. In fact, it is more a writing environment than a word processor.
What the Blue Technologies Group has done is to produce a tool for writers as opposed to office workers and in doing so have created a genuine innovation in the kind application where it looked as if all the innovating had been done.
Apart from the fact that its look and feel is so different from other writing tools, there are lots of things that will put people off. For a start, while it has some fairly primitive formatting tools – I say this without having used them – you need to switch into some other programme to format what you have written. But the biggest obstacle is that you have to use it for a while before its virtues become apparent.
Its greatest virtue is that it lets you focus on writing with few distractions. For example, I am writing this on a black screen with the words I write appearing in green – nothing else. No menus, no toolbars, no icons, just words. But even writing in its other mode made up of a number of windows and a menubar, it still feels very clean and focused.
So if you write anything more complex than very short documents or the odd letter and if you use a Mac, take a look at Ulysses, try the free download and use it for the thirty days or so they give you. I think you may be pleasantly surprised.

Thinking is very hard work

“Thinking is very hard work. And management fashions are a great substitute for thinking.”
A nice quote from Peter Drucker from a recent column by Simon Caulkin (one of my regular reads, as you can see here, here, here, here, here and here.)
Thanks to Pat Kane’s MY DEL.ICIO.US for the tip
P.S. I could resist adding this one from a collection of Drucker quotes:
“So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.”

Markets can’t do everything

Recently I have been wading through the rubbish dump I call my office trying to find some crucial bits of paper I need and with the vain hope of bringing some kind of order to the chaos in which I work.
This is something like an annual event, which usual involves throwing away sack-loads of stuff I realise I don’t really need, but also often means I find buried gems I didn’t know I still had. This time is no exception. For example, I found a whole lot of stuff I had written decades ago.
Time has been kind, for many of the ideas I was struggling with then, now seem much less strange and off-the-wall. In fact, if they weren’t typewritten on foolscap and quarto – obsolete British paper sizes – some of the stuff could have been written today.
To my slight surprise I found that a theme that ran through much of what I had written then was similar to my current concerns about how to escape machine thinking and how to enhance human freedom, creativity and ability to learn.
Some days ago I wrote approvingly about Jason Fried of 37signals and his advocacy of ‘making it up as you go along’. I haven’t changed my mind, but one concern I do have about Jason Fried and many other young people, who are successfully making it up as they go along is the way they seem to have totally bought into market romance and see almost any action by government as throwing away our money. So far as I can see many such people believe that the only way to to enhance human freedom, creativity and ability to learn is through the market.
My concern here is that they seem to have no recognition of the fact that their success, which they attribute to their own skills, hard work and entrepreneurial ability can, without denigrating their undoubted achievements, also be seen as free riding on the deep platforms created by government and non-market agents.
I was reminded of this while wading through the piles of newspaper clippings and old magazines I used to collect before switching to bookmarks and urls and finding a review of two books by James Fallows in the New York Review of Books – “The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story” by Michael Lewis and “High Stakes, No Prisoners: A Winner’s Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet Wars” by Charles H. Ferguson.
What really delighted me was to find that this review was on-line and contained a quote from Charles Ferguson I had been trying locate for some time:
“It has become fashionable to argue that industrial policy isn’t possible in America and is inherently a bad idea. But the record of government-supported Internet development versus the commercial online services industry clearly demonstrates exactly the opposite. The established technology companies, the Silicon Valley geniuses, the online services industry, and the venture capitalists all missed it for twenty years or more. Every brilliant, important, technologically farsighted Internet development came either from government agencies or universities. In the meantime, decision making in the competitive marketplace was narrow, short-sighted, self-protective, and technically far inferior to its Internet equivalents.”
So what seems to have been forgotten in the US and to some extent here in the UK is how the foundations for the vast creative playpen that is the internet was created through the actions of bureaucrats and people working in universities and international organisations. The US in particular had several glorious decades where people like J.C.R. Licklider and Ivan Sutherland, inspired by Vannevar Bush, a consummate bureaucrat as well as an entrepreneur among other things, commissioned bright people to spend government money to do interesting things and largely let them get on with it. All this creating the technical context where Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, working for a government funded international agency, CERN, could create the World Wide Web and then do that unmarket thing of giving it to the world for free.
So what am I saying here? I think it is that the Private enterprise vs Public enterprise argument that has dominated so much thinking over the past twenty years is a fruitless debate. You can find as much Soviet-styled bureaucratic thinking in large, stockmarket quoted corporation as you find anywhere else. Equally, as the examples I have just cited, you can find creative, free-spirited work going on within non-market organisations. The point as Richard Florida has argued is how can we create organisations and contexts in both the Private and Public sectors where we can tap into the creativity of the people who work there, but aren’t allowed to express it. In other words the key questions remain; how can we escape machine thinking and how do we enhance human freedom, creativity and ability to learn?

Design is a method of action

In “California Dreaming”, Bruce Sterling muses on his experiences as Visionary in Residence at Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California. Being there changed him. What he discovered, quoting Charles Eames, was that “Design is a method of action”, that changes its practitioners as much as those parts of the world they act on:
“When I used to write about design instead of teaching it, I found design exotic, attractive, and glamorous good copy. After teaching it, I changed. Today I find design to be thoughtful and sensible, while the daily texture of my previous life seems muddleheaded to me now, sluggish, vaguely trashy, vulgar even. Why was I like that back then? Why did I make such half-assed decisions about my tools, my possessions, and my material surroundings? Why was I so impassive, such a lazy, inveterate slob? I wasn’t any happier for that. Why did I allow myself to do little or nothing about the gross inadequacies of my personal environment? Why didn’t I take action? Why didn’t I do something pragmatic, observe the results, and improve that?…”
(Thanks to Sarah Rich of worldchanging for the link)