Finding ways to grow

Diego Rodriguez of metacool points out an old truth that the past is a rich source of “new” ideas:
“Innovation is about finding ways to grow that are right for you.  Do the ideas need to be new to the world?  Not likely, especially since there are few new things under the sun.  It may be as simple as looking back to times past in search of analogous situations.  People are still people.  What worked then that could work now?”

Irrational exuberance?

At a time when the smell of fear is in the air, I wonder whether my current optimistic state could be seen as another kind of irrational exuberance. Never the less I will boldly assert that:
1 The current financial crisis will be shorter lived and have less economic effect than many are currently predicting.
2. We are on the edge of one of the most productive and expansive periods of human development in the whole of our history.
(I’ll leave all the caveats for another time)

Willingness to learn

Another goody from Mary Catherine Bateson, this time from her blog:
“The slogan I use is, “You are not what you know but what you are willing to learn.” Willingness to learn demands respect for others across difference. Puzzling and even disturbing ideas are invitations to curiosity, and the greater the difference the more there may be to be learned. The world is a rain forest of variety full of promise that is at risk of being lost. If one teenager could give his father an appreciation of rap, another may be interestingly articulate about body piercing and baggy clothes. I have argued that the willingness to learn is a form of spirituality. It is a stance of humility, because there is so much to be learned.”

Keep on learning

Leafing through Mary Catherine Bateson’s “Willing to learn”, I discovered this passage, which speaks for itself:
“Biologists used to talk about the fact that human beings are what is called neotenous, which is to say that we never grow up. Thank heaven for that! If you look at a baby chimp, it’s almost identical to an infant human being, but it’s smarter and it develops and learns faster. But at a certain point, the chimp grows up and becomes less responsive. The shape of the skull changes, and the adult chimp is less like a human being, although very smart in many ways, less willing to learn, less willing to develop trusting relationships. Human babies are born extraordinarily immature and dependent, and our whole system of adaptation and survival as a species depends on the fact that we are cared for intensively over a long period of time. It is because of this that we can have an adaptation based on so much learning and we’ve been able to move over the entire surface of the planet, learning new adaptations – inventing science and technology and things of that sort – instead of following built-in instinctive programs.”
(From “You will know the future when you get there” by Mary Catherine Bateson, “Willing to learn: passages of Personal Discovery”, Steerforth Press, 2004, pp85-86 ISBN 1-58642-080-1 )

Freedom matters

Yesterday I listened to a fascinating conversation between Paul Miller and Clay Shirky at Demos – some good questions from Paul Miller and lots of important insights from Shirky – do listen yourself. Later that day I visited Hugh Macleod’s gapingvoid where he had a great link to an interview with Shirky in the Gothamist, some four years ago. His answer to the question, what will change the world, is worth reproducing in full:
“The thing that will change the future in the future is the same thing that changed the future in the past — freedom, in both its grand and narrow senses.
The narrow sense of freedom, in tech terms, is a freedom to tinker, to prod and poke and break and fix things. Good technologies — the PC, the internet, HTML — enable this. Bad technologies — cellphones, set-top boxes — forbid it, in hardware or contract. A lot of the fights in the next 5 years are going to be between people who want this kind of freedom in their technologies vs. business people who think freedom is a shitty business model compared with control.
And none of this would matter, really, except that in a technologically mediated age, our grand freedoms — freedom of speech, of association, of the press — are based on the narrow ones. Wave after wave of world-changing technology like email and the Web and instant messaging and Napster and Kazaa have been made possible because the technological freedoms we enjoy, especially the ones instantiated in the internet.
The internet means you don’t have to convince anyone that something is a good idea before trying it, and that in turn means that you don’t need to be a huge company to change the world. Microsoft gears up the global publicity machine its launch of Windows 98, and at the same time a 19 year old kid procrastinating on his CS homework invents a way to trade MP3 files. Guess which software spread faster, and changed people’s lives more?
So while things like FCC regulation of the internet have that MEGO quality (My Eyes Glaze Over), they matter, a lot, because the only way for 19 year olds to change the world in this medium is to give them the freedom to ignore all previous work to date, and come up with something new.”

Control the elegance of your behaviour

Despite my rather snotty remarks in my last post about going to Bryan Appleyard’s interview with Nassim Nicholas Taleb yourself if you wanted to read the bits about the value of tinkering and why you shouldn’t trust people who wear ties I couldn’t resist quoting Taleb’s top life tips here. (which includes a bit about ties:
1 Scepticism is effortful and costly. It is better to be sceptical about matters of large consequences, and be imperfect, foolish and human in the small and the aesthetic.
2 Go to parties. You can’t even start to know what you may find on the envelope of serendipity. If you suffer from agoraphobia, send colleagues.
3 It’s not a good idea to take a forecast from someone wearing a tie. If possible, tease people who take themselves and their knowledge too seriously.
4 Wear your best for your execution and stand dignified. Your last recourse against randomness is how you act — if you can’t control outcomes, you can control the elegance of your behaviour. You will always have the last word.
5 Don’t disturb complicated systems that have been around for a very long time. We don’t understand their logic. Don’t pollute the planet. Leave it the way we found it, regardless of scientific ‘evidence’.
6 Learn to fail with pride — and do so fast and cleanly. Maximise trial and error — by mastering the error part.
7 Avoid losers. If you hear someone use the words ‘impossible’, ‘never’, ‘too difficult’ too often, drop him or her from your social network. Never take ‘no’ for an answer (conversely, take most ‘yeses’ as ‘most probably’).
8 Don’t read newspapers for the news (just for the gossip and, of course, profiles of authors). The best filter to know if the news matters is if you hear it in cafes, restaurants… or (again) parties.
9 Hard work will get you a professorship or a BMW. You need both work and luck for a Booker, a Nobel or a private jet.
10 Answer e-mails from junior people before more senior ones. Junior people have further to go and tend to remember who slighted them.”

And now you’ve read this do go the interview here, lots of good stuff.

Tinkering intellectually

I’ve just enjoyed an interview with Nassim Nicholas Taleb by Bryan Appleyard. Well worth reading. I particularly liked the bits about the value of tinkering and why you shouldn’t trust people who wear ties. I was going to include those extracts in this post, but now you’ll have to go to the article yourself read them. (A quick google showed that the tinkering bit had been well covered in many blogs.)
Instead I’m going to quote a bit from Taleb’s Notebooks, number 33 to be exact, which I stumbled upon in my googling and may have less exposure:
“It is an irony that the academy does not have a word for the process by which discovery works best –but slang does. I was trying to describe in a letter what I am currently doing: French would not let me. But argot lends itself very well… I am involved in an activity called “glander”, more precisely “glandouiller”. It means “to idle”, though not “to be in a state of idleness” (it is an active verb). Gandouiller denotes enjoyment. The formal French word is “ne rien faire” (to do nothing), which misses on the active part –so do words that have a languishing connotation. Glander is what children without soccer moms do when they are out of school. It resembles  flâner which has this perambulation part; though glander does not have any strings attached. The Italians have farniente but it is really doing nothing. Even the Arabs do not have a verb for glander: the construction takaslana from the Semitic root ksl denotes laziness (other words imply some inertia).
Glander is how I write my books, how I brew ideas. Remarkably it best describes the notion of lifting all inhibitions to “tinker intellectually in an undirected stochastic process aiming at capturing some idea that will enrich your corpus”. “Researching” or “thinking” smack of a top-down activity. Newton was my kind of a “glandeur”; In [Dijksterhuis 2004]:
George Spencer Brown has famously said about Sir Isaac Newton that  “to arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and practiced, requires years of contemplation. Not activity. Not reasoning. Not calculating.  Not busy behavior of any kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is that one needs to know.”

(I am assuming the Dijksterhuis quote that I have put in italics is from “Think different: The merits of unconscious thought in preference development and decision making”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 586–598)

Something very close to grace

“… The ability to pay attention, to focus, to concentrate, to resist distractions, is as essential to the design process as it is to successful life in general. It is the quality of attention that distinguishes design detail, that enables an architect to design a building that belongs where it is. For attention to detail does not mean fussiness, but an appropriate locating of energies.
In the end, it is something very close to grace.”
Ralph Caplan, “Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects”, Fairchild Publications, 2006, pp247
ISBN 1 56367 390 8