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An old rigid civilization is reluctantly dying. Something new, open, free and exciting is waking up.

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Contacting Me
I get many hundreds of e-mail messages per day and my inbox is becoming increasingly useless to me. So, if you write to me, don't count on an answer unless we know each other really well, or your communication is short and clear. Oh, I'm very friendly and approachable, but I don't have hours enough in my day to read everything.
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Sunday, November 6, 2011day link 

 Counting what counts
picture We make many of our decisions based on what we directly perceive. If you have the choice between two cupcakes, and the bigger, more chocolaty one, looks better and the thought of eating it makes you feel better, that's probably the one you'll choose. Unless you directly perceive something else that tells you otherwise, like a little voice that tells you it is fattening, or a hunch that your friend would enjoy it more than you would.

We humans in particular also make many of our decisions based on abstractions that we perceive or deduce. A table of calories in your head might make you not eat the cupcake after all. Its price might have a bearing on it. There are numbers and qualities attached to lots of things, which influence your behavior around them. This is symbolic stuff which carries a meaning to us.

Augmented reality glasses isn't yet something that is available to us, but we act as if we're already wearing them. There's an invisible heads up display that superimposes symbolic values and characteristics on most everything we deal with. Abstract information both changes our perceptions of what's right there in front of us, and it gives a lot of extra importance to stuff we don't see at all, which happens elsewhere. It is in our peripheral attention that we need to pay the rent and that there's a meeting in half an hour.

Within this mesh of perceptions and information we make the best decisions we can. Generally speaking, sane human beings will attempt to make the very best decision possible at any time, the decision that maximizes the benefits and minimizes the disadvantages. That has often been called selfishness, but it could just as well be called intelligence. Of course you choose from what is available the best experience with the lowest cost. And if you don't, it is because you have information that assigns value differently. You might be perfectly happy not getting a new fresh fluffy towel every single day in a hotel, because you know that it saves resources to use the same towel several times.

Not everybody makes equally good decisions. Most people try, but some have a harder time than others extrapolating what information means, visualizing consequences. A small percentage of people are altogether unable to empathize with the feelings of others, and will therefore make decisions that only maximize their own individual interests, no matter what costs and pain it incurs on anybody else, no matter whether they're aware of this or not. But for most people, the more the merrier, and they'd happily extend good decisions to those around them, and to the world at large.

So, if, as I claim, most people are benevolent, and they routinely choose the best decision available, why isn't the world a much better place? Most people on the street would be able to tell you what many of the problems in the world are. Pollution, deforestation, resource depletion, war, injustice, inequality, corruption, crime. Yet all of those things are the direct result of our collective actions so far. Why doesn't it add up?

The problem is bad or missing information. We supposedly live in an information age, but unfortunately it is mostly junk information, and the most useful information tends to be missing. If you have faulty information, you'll make faulty decisions. If the information is missing, you'll guess, quite possibly wrongly, based on the faulty information you have. Garbage in, garbage out. If you try to make a decision about the quality of a product solely based on an advertisement, which is meant to mislead you, you are likely to make a mistake.

There are many ways we might help people have better information so they can make better decisions. Creating networks of trust, where you know who's likely to provide reliable information. Independent information repositories about the activities of companies or governments. Raw feeds from the sources of information. Better visualization tools for understanding publicly available information. Training in critical thinking. But the most direct way is to actually count the right things.

A proper accounting system would change the world. If we actually were able to notice the degree to which value is added and taken away from our shared commons, and this information were integrated into our economic system, everything would change very rapidly.

The all pervasive global economic system we're living in uses a unit of measure, money, which is created out of thin air in bank computers and provided in the form of debt to people who're deemed able to pay that debt back with interest. There are a lot of things to say about that system. One is that it is based on the impossible idea of endless growth. Another is that it per definition will introduce a lot of scarcity and lead people to compete with each other for the perceived scarcities. And, important to this discussion, this kind of money only values that which can produce a monetary profit. Almost all resources on the planet, and many metaphysical resources, like ideas, words, thoughts, songs, have been converted into stuff that now is owned and counted in this unit of money. But what's much worse about that is that it isn't at all the valuable things that are being counted. What is being counted is the potential to produce more of those numbers that we count - money. What is being counted is not really most of the things we find valuable. Yes, some of the things that money can be paid for are good and valuable, but many more are terribly destructive.

Clean air, forests, good education, clean drinking water, happiness, creativity, health. If you have money, you can pay for creating more of those things. But that in itself isn't good business, so you would have had to make your money elsewhere first, before you can show such largesse. The very best ways of making money would be in exploiting natural resources for personal profit, leaving the cleanup costs to everybody else, or in speculating in the money system itself, amassing made up numbers, without producing any actual value whatsoever.

It is all in what is counted. All that is needed is to move our money system from being based on self-reflective monetary profit to being based on something more real and valuable. No, not gold, nothing valuable about that, other than it being rare. Our natural environment would be a good choice. Air, land, water, and its productive capacity. Money could be based on our common environment. Thus the real costs of exploiting it or possibly destroying it would necessarily have to be included in the accounting. As would the real costs of regenerating it, so that it can keep being valuable.

The point is that what is being counted, and particularly what is given a value number, will be noticed. If those numbers actually mean that things are more or less easy to get at, we will start changing our behaviors around them. That a styrofoam cup costs 5 cents, and that it doesn't cost anything extra to throw it "away" after using it for 10 seconds and dump it in a landfill, that's a complete fiction. If all the costs were included, and all the benefits weighed against them, the situation would look very different, and most likely you would make different choices.

Individuals don't have to understand the full implications of everything. We're all busy with our particular projects and preferences. It isn't necessarily practical to become an expert on everything and understanding the ins and outs of how a planetary ecosystem best is managed. The economic system should assist us in making decisions that affect the whole.

It is very simple, really. Free market economics can be a perfectly sound self-organizing system. As long as we count the right stuff. I.e. we count the complete costs of stuff, and we try to count as valuable that which we really find valuable. If that styrofoam cup costs $1, and it would cost $2 to dispose of it, and it costs $0.01 cents to reuse your ceramic mug, you naturally will make a different decision than before. It doesn't take any persuasion, it doesn't take any idealistic desire to do something for the planet. Even if you're acting completely selfishly, the cheaper choice is likely to seem the better one. Unless there really were a unique value in drinking once from a styrofoam cup which somehow made it worth the trouble to make some extra money so you can buy it.

It doesn't have to be called money. We're basically talking about information. When the supermarket writes "Organic" on a sign next to the gnarly little lemons that cost a bit more than the good looking ones, it allows me to make an economic decision. I might be happy to pay a bit more to know that the coffee is "fair trade". But numbers would be better. We all know that $4 is better than $5 when we need to pay it. We aren't all so thoughtful as to consider more abstract implications than that. So, it would be better if the money system itself were based on something real.

If we can simply see the world a bit better, we make better decisions. That seeing includes the numbers attached to things. The numbers we need to pay is an important aspect, but there can be others. Even if nothing changed about how things are priced in today's world, if I had a heads up display that told me the actual costs and actual benefits of a given item, I'd act differently. So would most people. Buy this item for $4 and a kid in Sudan will no longer have clean drinking water, or buy this one for $6, which is produced in a sustainable way. Yes, it needs to be less crude and more sophisticated than that. And it can be. We can be pretty good with numbers. We just need to apply them to the stuff we actually want to measure.

It is a simple game we humans like to play. Give us a number and convince us it is good, and we'll put our creativity and hard work to use in making that number bigger. We're pretty good at it, but it is also our weakness. Unscrupulous people might temporarily trick us into maximizing their numbers instead of our own or instead of our overall shared numbers. We've caught on to that now. Still, we like making numbers bigger, so let's at least start doing that with some numbers that count what counts in the world.
[ | 2011-11-06 21:33 | 11 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Thursday, November 3, 2011day link 

 Seeing the world through the Internet
picture In the human eye, a system of little rods and cones pick up light that comes into the eye. Some 120 million rods in an eye will measure the intensity of the light. The 6-7 million cones will measure colors. The brain then puts all these "pixels" together into what we perceive as one coherent, continuous picture, with lots of details, in color, different shades, etc. It is a bit of an illusion, but it allows us to rather accurately predict what we find around us. You see an object, you can estimate its distance, and you can reach out your hand and find it where you expected.

On the Internet, we're increasingly being presented with a stream of information chunks. Compared with a few years ago, the chunks have gotten smaller and there are many more of them. Twitter, Facebook walls, Google+, SMS, e-mail, it is all streams. New stuff shows up non-stop. Thousands of items every day for most of us.

At some point in the past, one would find it natural to simply process everything that showed up, because the volume of it was small. If somebody wrote me a personal letter, I would of course read it carefully, and I would of course sit down and write an answer back. Even if it took me an hour, and it was only for one person. If I subscribed to a newspaper, I would read it. And I still remember living in a country where there was one TV channel, only broadcasting in the late afternoon and in the evening. If there was anything on the program that would be within my interest area, I would watch it, as would everybody else. Today, all of that is more or less impossible, so we've gotten used to ignoring most of it, skimming a lot of it, and only digging deeply into a few choice items.

So, now, as we're no longer dutifully digesting and responding to every single item, it becomes more about the overall picture of what's happening. We're noticing what people are talking about, we're noticing trends. We have a general idea about what our friends are into, based on having seen a bunch of their postings flow by in our peripheral attention.

But are the information chunks we receive suitable pixels that allow us to form a coherent and continuous picture of what is there? Yes and no. We do get glimpses of a lot of incidental information that allows us to form a picture. But we also get large volumes of fictional information, stuff that's made up to present a certain picture, which isn't really what's there.

We've gotten quite used to experts preparing news articles for us. Then we pass those around, adding our own like or dislike opinions about them. Other people will write new articles, quoting those first articles. Whatever they say gets amplified, distorted and colored along the way. What people trade in and respond to is those information particles. Articles, postings, words, links, likes, retweets. None of that includes much in terms of ways of interacting with the source matter, the stuff that's actually there, or that actually happened. OK, an article might have links to sources, or to organizations being discussed. It might have pictures. There might be live or recorded video, showing actual events. But the ratio of actual stuff to opinions about such stuff is relatively low.

This all gives me the problem of how I can assemble a coherent and reasonably correct picture of stuff through the medium of electronic communications. First of all, all the pieces aren't easily assembled. They don't necessarily fit together. And even if I assemble what they say, the picture might be of something mostly fictional. Fox News presents a rather coherent picture, but it probably isn't what actually is there. Imagine then the difficulties of a Semantic Web, where the meaning of stuff supposedly would be brought out, simply by automatically examining how things are tagged. Spam and propaganda and misdirection are all included into the picture.

How can we make the stream of info pieces more useful for assembling useful pictures of what is there?

Incidental, peripheral information is often more honest than what is contrived and constructed to send a certain message. If somebody's sending you a message, you can expect that they've constructed the message to say just what they'd like you to receive, that it is somehow twisted to their advantage, and that they've left out lots of things that aren't what they wanted to say. There doesn't have to be any sinister motives for that, almost everybody's doing it to one degree or another. It is hard to know who people really are, if you only listen to their carefully crafted press releases, or tweets, or lectures, or comments. It is hard to know what really happened, if you get it from somebody with an economic interest in presenting it a certain way.

Incidental, unguarded, raw information feeds might be much better in conveying the complexity of the world, and might thus be much better material for assembling an image fo what is there.

If you're watching somebody give a presentation, a video feed would allow you to pick up much more information than the words he's saying, in the form of body language, the setting he's in, who else is there, etc.

Whereas you only get to know certain choice aspects of a certain person's personality from reading their tweets, an open video channel would tell you a lot more. Imagine just opening up a video conference connection with a friend for an hour, while each of you went about your normal business. If you simply ignored each other, you might well learn more about each other than if you had had an intense conversation during that time. Because you would convey information that isn't prepared and prepackaged to look a certain way. The complexity of the truth would be more available. Who you're receiving phone calls from, how you talk to your kids, what you actually spend your time on, how you look when you're not trying to look good, etc.

There are other ways it could happen than live video of course, but that is one good example. You'll notice that we have several kinds of Internet tools. Most of them are meant for conveying stuff that's constructed. Others are meant for conveying something more raw. There are location services that transmit your location, no matter where you are. There are others than let you check in when you're in an interesting place. Notice the difference. If I'd want to form a more true picture of you, I'd find more use in the continuous raw feeds, which also tells me that you go to the supermarket and the bank, not just when you travel to exotic places.

So, please, give me more raw un-edited feeds of everything. Also and particularly for big corporations and governments. I don't just want to see ads and speeches. I want to see raw complex feeds that I can piece together into what they actually are doing, not what they say they're doing.

Also, think about the raw material available for our collective intelligence to emerge. Imagine that a global brain is beginning to wake up, and that its raw material is the information we share electronically. If all we feed it is press releases, news articles, Facebook walls, tweets, and reruns of "I love Lucy", how is it going to turn out?

As the world is speeding up, becoming more complex and more inter-connected, it is becoming increasingly more important to be able to see what is going on in a wider sphere. There are a lot of forces at work that sabotage this. Information silos that keep things to themselves, inside their own sites, to hold on to customers and be more valuable. A culture where few people report on things, and most others just re-transmit the reports, without taking time to verify anything for themselves. Protocols that encourage information to be disconnected from their sources. For better or for worse, the Internet was constructed that way. You don't know if the e-mail you just got really was from the person it says it is from. You don't know where most of the information on web pages comes from. Better, more trustworthy, less fragmented technologies can be developed.

In the meantime, your best bet for seeing the world more as it is, is to seek out unfiltered, unguarded communication channels. Seek out or create feeds of stuff that it would be impractical for anybody to doctor or police. Poke holes through the armor of large organizations, force them to open up unfiltered streams of any kind.
[ | 2011-11-03 16:51 | 5 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Wednesday, February 23, 2011day link 

 The Collective Intelligence Singularity
picture I don't really believe in The Singularity, in the sense that there's a rapidly approaching point in time when computers become much smarter than humans, so much smarter that they take over the control of the further evolution of society.

Generally speaking, the idea that there's an accelerating curve of machine intelligence, leading to the machines taking over some time soon seems a little silly to me. There's an accelerating curve of processing power, and there's an accelerating curve of many other interesting things. But if you're talking about conscious machines, there's simply no curve. No computer has been shown to have any kind of consciousness whatsoever. None. Neither has any other machine we've constructed. You can program computers. Given more processing power and better algorithms, you can program computers to solve more and more problems in more flexible ways, running on their own more of the time. That's great. But to simply hope that somewhere along the way, bing, a miracle happens and suddenly they become conscious as well, that's a little naive. It would at least make sense to first try to understand what consciousness is.

But there are other singularities that are likely to happen relatively soon which are equally interesting, and much preferable. Most interesting to me would be the collective intelligence singularity which might well be just a couple of years away. I.e. there's a point where we, as a group, a society, a planetary population, become smarter than any one of us. Not only that, but smarter than any one of us is able to understand. We right now already have a hard time understanding the world, but the collective intelligence isn't yet particularly clever. At some point it might actually really, really start working, and we'll not be able to understand exactly why.

For that matter, this could very well happen in 2012. You know, since many of us are looking towards some kind of cataclysmic event happening then. So, instead, it might very well be a monumental leap forward in our collective evolution. Not the end of the world, but the end of a world that can be dominated by individuals. A world where 6 billion people actually are smarter than any 1, 10, 100 or 1000 people, however rich and powerful and smart they are.

You see it beginning to happen right now, in the form of a series of uprisings against authoritarian governments. None of these revolutions are terribly intelligent, but they surely demonstrate that a large group of people is stronger than one strong guy and his hired hands. That's surprisingly something new. The masses can get rid of the guy at the top, even and particularly if he is a billionaire and a mass-murderer, and then they can actually self-organize in constructive ways.

The global Collective Intelligence is certainly technologically amplified. The Internet is its nervous system. In all its forms: SMS, Twitter, Facebook, Skype, e-mail etc. But it is important to realize that it is not something foreign that is going to "take over". It is all of us. We The People. Humanity.

The fact that a few desperate dictators keep trying to shut down or control electronic communication among "their" people will ensure that the network will evolve more rapidly to the point where it really can't be shut down.

There are many things going on right now that are leading in the same direction. WikiLeaks makes it a bit harder for the few to hide big bad things from the many. Natural catastrophes accentuate the need for rapid ad hoc self-organization. Who knows what is going on? Are the people I know safe? How can I help?

It is becoming harder to lead large populations along based on lies, and it is becoming easier for large populations to figure out together what is going on and what needs to be done.

Collective Intelligence is emerging. It needs to develop more internal complexity, of the good kind, more connections, a more fine-grained neural network. But that can happen very quickly. There's nothing essentially new that needs to be invented first.

It will take most of us by surprise. Then again, it won't. It will take those few people by surprise who think it is up to them to make the world work, by owning or ruling most of it. The rest of us will be a bit surprised too, but at the same time we have an intuitive sense of it. No matter what political observation we think we adhere to, most of us have a sense of being part of The People, and we'd be quite satisfied to see that suddenly The People seems to know how to act in a sensible way. Things seem to strangely be getting better.

So, here's my prediction: Before the end of the year 2012, next year, there will be a widespread realization that something profound has changed. Together we are undeniably more than any one of us possibly can be. People in power can no longer keep their sordid secrets, and for that matter, suddenly nobody can stay "in power" through the traditional means. Big problems get sorted out by self-organized networking. Suddenly, the more people get involved in something, the better the outcome tends to be. It is puzzling, and nobody can easily put their finger on how or why it changed. The best solutions are typically found, and the truth tends to emerge.

It is a singularity because, once it happens, there's no way back. You can't shut it off any longer. And none of us can completely understand it, or predict what it will do next. But at the same time, we will probably increasingly have a shared feeling of it. Because, again, it is us.
[ | 2011-02-23 23:12 | 10 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Tuesday, February 1, 2011day link 

 Slow Mo Flow
picture I had kept in the back of my mind the memory of the best feedback anybody ever gave me on my blog. I hadn't made an effort to remember exactly who said it or what they said, but I remembered the core feeling of it. But now that I suddenly decided to find it again, I had quite some difficulty doing so. My blog doesn't have a search on feeling. But finally I found it. It is from this article: The things to do. It might well surprise you that I think it is the best comment I got, because it certainly isn't the most glowing praise I've received. Lots of people have said some very, very nice things about me, and I'm happy for it. But this was more about providing an insight. In this case an insight into how and why I write. This is the central part of the comment from lugon:
I don't think I'll spoil any secret if I say something of what's in Ming's writing. It's just slow mo! Just imagine a bike running across the fields: it leaves many small curves untouched. Ming just takes it slow and so his bike touches all those small curves. Which is interesting, considering it looks like he's at full speed all the time.
That rang a number of bells for me. Nobody else has ever described it like that, before or after. I love writing, or rather, I love when I manage to express something real in writing. I don't do it very often. I've actually done it rather little in the last few years. When I get away from it, I have a hard time finding the path again. I might make attempts, but it just isn't right. But when it is right, it is like that. Freezing the moment and describing everything that's in it, while simultaneously being full speed ahead. It is really just being mindful of the experience one is having. But I want to live there more.
[ | 2011-02-01 00:05 | 11 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Sunday, January 23, 2011day link 

picture It's when you act and speak in harmony with who you really are, what you feel, and what really is going on. It's the truth. Unfortunately we tend to be afraid of it.

Our society seems organized so as to thwart authenticity at every turn. There are rules to follow. You need to live up to expectations. You need to be able to back up your words and your actions with reasons and logic and references to more important words uttered by established authorities. You'll often be rewarded for constructing convincing lies, apparently out of facts. But not often for expressing the truth.

Imagine that it all changed. Most people most of the time doing and saying what they actually feel is right for them, as opposed to what they're supposed to do or say.

It could just somehow become fashionable one day, for unknown reasons. An evolutionary shift. Or, a movement could be engineered. It would require some prominent role models. Some famous people who stand up and say the truth, despite the consequences. Collections of success stories, people who did the right thing and it turned out well.

Just even talking about authenticity is difficult. Our language makes it sound a lot more fuzzy than it is. We can express our authentic experience in words, but the problem with statements made of words is that they end up kind of frozen. Words are transportable, tempting us to take them with us and apply them to other contexts. Where they possibly might no longer fit. Yet we try to hold each other to the standard of standing by our words, or being able to back up our words with strings of arguments.

I'm implying, mind you, that there's a depth of unseen wisdom inherent in authenticity. Or, at least, that's the aspect I'm speaking to. There are lots of things you can say that literally are true, but which don't get you anywhere good. Lots of things that you can feel at any given point that maybe aren't really YOU. And one could have long discussions about which things are authentic and which are not. What I am talking about is that inside of you there's a compass. There's a sense of whether you're aligned, not just with yourself, but with the universe. With the environment, with others, with life. At multiple levels. It's not a separate thing, it is a connected thing. And the claim is that it is a lot smarter than most of the complicated but simplistic structures we've set up to manage our society.

We're used to thinking of it as something vulnerable. It can sometimes be awkward and embarrassing to just say the truth. You might sound naive, you might open yourself up to all sorts of attacks. But, really, what I'm talking about is quite the other way around. You might plug into the collected wisdom of the universe, or at the very least, the vast parallel processing capability of your sub-conscious mind. As opposed to the card house built of societal norms, the expectations of others, and your collection of acquired factoids and supposed-tos. What really IS is usually a lot deeper than what "should" be. We might get used to it also being more viable, stronger, more productive.
[ | 2011-01-23 13:46 | 18 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Saturday, January 22, 2011day link 

picture Occasionally, going about my business some day, I wake up, surprised to find myself again in the present moment. I had of course not been altogether asleep since the last time, but it feels kind of like it. Suddenly, one moment it is all clear and present and very real, and I'm very clear and present. The strange part about it is the recognition that it is the same place where I was before. Exactly the same awareness. But "before" is, like, 10 years ago, or 40, or a thousand. But there's no doubt I was there before.

That feels shocking. Like when you've driven home from work in your car, while thinking about something else, and you suddenly find yourself in your garage, having no clue what happened along the way, as you weren't really there.

It doesn't have to be an enlightening spiritual thing, although sometimes it is. Might just be to recognize and remember something. A smell I knew as a child, and suddenly it is there again 40 years later, and there's a package of sensations and thoughts that go with it. Where was it hiding during all that time?

Or a person, of course. You look into their eyes, and, bing, you recognize them. You're there with them again, despite that you just met. It is the same, even though everything is different.

Why not stay in that moment where everything is connected? Does the intervening sleep-walk serve a purpose? I don't know.
[ | 2011-01-22 18:40 | 6 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Monday, August 23, 2010day link 

 Where's Ming?
I'm usually always active somewhere. Not necessarily in my blog. Maybe it is time to invent a new type of site that shows one's activity, even if it is spread over multiple sites. People have already invented sites that track somebody down across many social network sites. But that still isn't quite right. Would make more sense with a site that I control that makes it easy to see what I'm up to.

Anyway, one can usually find me on Twitter, and recently I've posted stuff on Quora. It is a site where people post questions and answers in different topics. And since I often get triggered by a question, that kind of works well for me, even if it is somewhat random what I end up answering.
[ | 2010-08-23 00:36 | 6 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

 Semantic Pauses
picture This is an answer to the question How does one perform a "cortico-thalamic pause"? on Quora.

The idea of a "cortico-thalamic pause" springs from General Semantics and was popularized in the Null-A science fiction books by A.E. von Vogt.

It has also been called a Semantic Pause or a Cognitive Pause.

Thalamus/Thalamic is here used as a shorthand for the lower brain functions, associated with feelings, sensing, pain, pleasure, instincts, bodily functions, etc. Massive sub-conscious parallel processing goes on there and responses are often immediate.

Neo-Cortex/Cortical is the shorthand for the higher, more recently developed, brain functions, associated with conscious thinking, reasoning, language use, deliberate decision making, etc. It can do abstract thinking, but can't focus on more than a couple of things at the same time.

We easily get in trouble when we mix the two. Our ability to abstract is rather new and apparently a bit faulty. The cortex might construct a "meaning" for some lower level sensations which gives rise to faulty decisions. The thalamic system might launch instant action based on what was sketchy reasoning in the cortex. E.g. killing somebody because they have the wrong religious belief.

Note that I don't personally buy the idea that consciousness originates in the brain. But clearly it is involved in the process, and what we know about brains is very useful in helping us understand the structure of thinking.

The idea of the semantic pause is basically to be conscious of the link between one's reactions and one's reasoning, and to make sure they're in sync. It doesn't have to be a literal pause in time, but it could be. It is an equivalent of "count to ten before you...".

If you were about to take impulsive physical action, the pause would allow you to think through the logic and implications of what you were about to do.

The other way around, if you thought you just arrived at a logical, well reasoned conclusion, a semantic pause would allow you to notice what you actually feel about it, what your instincts tell you. Does it feel right? Does it work?

The pause is an opportunity for testing all levels of the machinery that is in play. If you were doing an experiment that you were about to draw certain conclusions from, it would of course be very wise to check and double check everything from the bottom up. What are the characteristics and limitations of the parts and materials you're using? Are there outside influences? At which points do you abstract (simplify) a complex phenomenon into something more simplistic? Are there ambiguities? Are there multiple possible interpretations? What would the words you use mean to different people?

The objective is to take decisions and actions that are coherent, congruent and sane at all levels. The cortico-thalamic pause is a system check and a consistency check at and between multiple levels.

The primary ingredient is consciousness. Pay attention. Be aware. Examine everything that is there, including your own thoughts, your premises, your feelings, what you perceive.

There are certain tools that are helpful. A consciousness of abstraction is vital. Simply being aware that there are many levels of abstraction between what really is there and what you put into words and thoughts. Not just being aware of that, but specifically examining the transition between a "thing" and its abstraction. At what point do some rays of light become a picture in your brain? At what point do you group it together with other tables you've seen, to identify it as a "table"? At what point does the word "table" lose its connection with the particular image you saw?

There are many ways that perceptions and cognition can be fooled. There are fallacies, there are the mis-directions of stage magicians. You'd need to be well versed in such tricks, and you'd need to be skeptical about what you're being presented with. Is there any way you might be fooled? It might not really be a table, just because it looked like one, or because somebody says it is.

There are degrees to all of this. For a person to be expected to act and respond sanely, he/she must have a certain command of infinity valued logic. Which means to always be aware that there are degrees of abstraction, degrees of certainty, etc., and to be able to make the best possible conclusions based on that, despite the always present degrees of uncertainty. Somebody who thinks in black and white two-valued logic is easily manipulated and fooled.

If you have some of these skills, they will naturally be active in parallel. It will be something you'll be aware of more or less all the time.

On top of that, it will be a moment of reflection, paying full attention at as many levels as possible.

Imagine yourself waking up at a level of a dream, like in the movie Inception. How do you know if you're dreaming? Can you trust your perceptions? Are you being fooled? Is there any test you can do to verify your conclusions?

It is that kind of awareness, but applied also to possibly very routine moments in life. Pay attention. Question everything. Perceive. Feel. Think systemically.
[ | 2010-08-23 01:31 | 14 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Tuesday, July 20, 2010day link 

 Getting other people to do stuff
picture I'm going to give outsourcing another shot. Which isn't easy, because I'm kind of bad at delegating, and I seem to be missing a bit of business sense.

It can all change, of course, but it is somewhat traumatic. There are a number of things I'm very good at. Possibly some things I'm absolutely brilliant at. But I spend a big portion of my time doing stuff I'm not very good at, working hard, long hours, and what I have to show for it is somewhat mediocre. There's some amount of emotion wrapped up in that too. It isn't fair. It's stressful. It pisses me off. I'm kind of apathetic about changing it. Despite my better judgement, I seem to believe that if I just work a little harder, then, maybe, it will all work out, and I can get around to the stuff I really want to do. But generally it doesn't seem to make a lot of difference how hard I work.

I've only fairly recently realized that I need to learn the basic principles of business and marketing. I've always had a certain amount of contempt for a society that's organized around buying low and selling high, around deceiving people into buying stuff they don't need, where most of the resources end up owned by people who do clever tricks with numbers, rather than by the people who work and produce stuff. But I can also change my mind, and notice that some of the principles of business apply to any activity, whether there's money involved or not. To create more value, it makes sense to look for opportunities to shift resources from areas of low productivity to areas of high productivity. Which happens to be one of the definitions of entrepreneurship. Why not get the most bang for the buck, whether money is involved or not? Work smarter, not harder. I'm trying to convince myself here.

One of the sensible and fashionable things to do, if one is independent and makes more than minimum wage, is to outsource as much of one's work as possible, particularly the stuff that isn't one's core competency and that could be done as well, or better, by somebody being paid a lot less. I first have to get over a bit of distaste for doing that, and convince myself that it can be a win-win for everybody. Really, there are other parts of the world where the cost of living is very different, and where there are loads of well educated people who'd love to work for me for a fraction of what a similar worker would cost where I live. I don't have to feel bad about that.

Part of what is hard for me when I employ somebody else to do something is that I have to be able to make decisions based on their performance, and fire them if it doesn't work.

It isn't like I'm without experience. I had my own company already when I was 20, a cleaning services company, with a dozen part-time employees. That worked well, and I hired and fired people without too much difficulty, did marketing and sales, and made a profit. And I've been a manager of IT departments and development teams. That's where part of my problem would start showing up. Even if I have a handful of other programmers to work with me, who're there to do whatever I ask them to do, I have had a tendency to end up doing 90% of the work myself. Which isn't good. I was always very popular with the people on my team, though.

I tried once before to outsource part of my work to a foreign worker over the net, more than 10 years ago, which is one reason I'm nervous about it. I had a guy in the Ukraine working full time for me for $1000 per month. I kind of felt it was so ridiculously little that I shouldn't really complain too much. He was a very nice guy, but so slow and unproductive that nothing he did ever really helped me with anything, and I had usually gotten impatient and solved the problem myself before he had finished his initial study of the problem, which usually took several weeks. Now, years later, he still writes and thanks me once in a while. Really, I had been paying him such a royal sum of money that he could move to a better neighborhood, buy a house, get married and have kids. Which is lovely, and I'm happy for him, but it never really created any value for me.

But I'm going to give it another shot, and test performance before going to the next step.

What it really is about is a transition for me. The puzzle is not primarily about money and work hours and projects for customers, but more about how to move to the next level. How can I be more effective? How can I do what I'm here to do, without getting stuck in the details? How does one start sustainable activities? Even if we're talking about an idealistic non-profit activity, it somehow needs to be financed, by money or time or work or other resources. And it needs to be done in an effective way that actually works, and keeps working.

See, I have a similar problem in non-profit activities. I haven't had trouble drumming up some interest in some things I was working on from time to time, or inspiring people to join up with them in some fashion. But I have a fairly lousy track record in getting people to actually participate in developing and evolving them. Which is not their fault, but mine. To collaborate, it usually needs to be very clear what we're collaborating on. If you want others to do something, it better be very clear what it is. Somehow I've often been very vague about what there is to do, or what I need. Just like I usually have been very vague about what exactly I'm doing. You just can't easily build something precise based on vagueness.

So, I'm working on being more clear, primarily on what I want, and to create more clear interfaces for how one can work with me, and what I'm available for.
[ | 2010-07-20 14:24 | 13 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Wednesday, July 14, 2010day link 

 Consciousness of Pattern
picture Our minds are to a large degree pattern matching machines. As kids we've learned the difference between tables and chairs, and to recognize which things are edible and which aren't, and that food goes into the mouth, and trash goes into the trashcan, and trashcans go outside on Thursdays. We can smoothly decipher letters and words and sentences, in the languages we know. We can recognize thin ice, friendly or angry faces, and tunes from old TV shows. We're pretty damned versatile.

We're less good with more complex patterns. We certainly have developed some, and worked out a partial understanding of others. We live in societies with complicated infrastructures and we can entertain intricate theories about science and philosophy. Some of them are very useful and reusable. But we're not terribly good at being conscious of several levels at the same time. It tends to be one or another. Most people live in the everyday routine, at best keeping good track of when they're going to work, when bills need to be paid, and who will be in the superbowl. Others live in a more abstract pattern, seeing the world as one big scientific model, or as a philosophical exercise, at the same time being a little dense when it comes to the most immediate stuff.

But how about being aware of the forest at the same time as the tree? How can you be focused on the work at hand AND the whole group or activity you're part of?

Can one simultaneously be aware of being an individual, and a collection of cells, and a part of a group, and an expression of universal consciousness?

To be conscious of patterns of a higher order, it helps to have a language to describe them. Pattern languages are just that. They're ways of making abstract patterns explicit and thus easier to be aware of and work with. It you don't have a word for something, it is hard to stay aware of it, without slipping into unconsciousness about it. If you know explicit patterns, you can apply them to stuff you construct or participate in. Easier to knit a sweater when you have a pattern, easier to learn the dance steps if there are footprints on the floor.

There can be, and are, pattern languages for architecture, for software development, for collaboration. It is maybe a little odd to call them languages, as we typically merely are talking about collections of described patterns. A pattern language can also go further, and attach words to stuff that previously was impossible to describe. The existence of patterns or a pattern language can allow you to deliberately create certain effects that maybe otherwise seemed completely random and out of your hands. An architect who uses a pattern language might deliberately create a space that people feel good in, because he can express himself in forms that have certain meanings to the people who use them, whether they are consciously aware of it or not.

Another simple example. You're having a meeting with some people. This post was inspired in part by an online discussion I had with George Pór and Seb Paquet. Like most people who need to have an online meeting, we picked from the most available tools for doing such a thing, and we used Skype. We can talk at the same time, and we can chat at the same time. It doesn't yet do video for 3 people, if they're Mac users. But tools and meeting formats shape what happens. Are you aware of how? When you meet with a group of people, are you aware how the pattern the meeting is structured by will influence what will happen?

Patterns are just as important as what you "do" or what you focus on. Maybe more. If you work really hard, but you work on the wrong thing, it doesn't do you much good. The pattern is the frame, the setting, the subtext, the context. A pattern is maybe something abstract, but is an expression of something very real and concrete, which often is outside our awareness, and often not within our ability to talk about.

If you have a meeting where everybody says whatever they feel like, whenever they feel like it, that's some kind of pattern. If you have a meeting where the head guy talks first, and then people ask questions, that's another pattern. A meeting where different roles are assigned to the participants is different from a meeting without any roles. Somebody might keep written notes, somebody might do a mind map, somebody might try to summarize conclusions. A meeting where the members commit to doing certain things after the meeting, like trying to communicate the essence of what happened, or implementing what was agreed upon, is different from a meeting without such a commitment. All of those are different patterns.

If we know we're dancing together, we can relax and just dance. If we don't know what we're doing, maybe somebody will analyze it afterwards and tell us. But there's something to say for a coherence between different levels in real time. If you stay conscious of more complex collective patterns you're participating in while you're doing your own thing, maybe it all will fit better together.

In the past I've once or twice had the job of designing information systems for medium sized companies with 50-100 employees, where I was supposed to essentially computerize most of the activities and workflows that were taking place. I was somewhat stunned to discover that although each person was quite sure of their own job, the whole picture usually didn't fit together. Person B would undo what person A had done. Person C would put the files in alphabetical order, and person D would put them back in numerical order. And person E would do absolutely nothing, without anybody noticing. Lots of effort was wasted because nobody ever had looked at the whole thing. The CEO was doing CEO kind of stuff, the Receptionist was doing receptionist kind of stuff. Nobody had the job of making the whole thing fit together. But I had to understand that in order to make any attempt of creating an information system to support these people.

If you're busy doing something, but it is out of sync with what the overall activity is about, or if a bunch of you are busy doing stuff, but nobody has any clue what it all is about, maybe there's not much synergy. Or maybe there is, and you don't know it. Just imagine that you could be conscious of the next higher level as well. While you do what you do, you somehow sense what the bigger picture is as well.

What a group of people do together can't always be reduced to a neat organizational chart or an executive summary. It might not even be possible to express exactly what it is. The coherence in a collective activity isn't dependent on words. There might be an entirely non-verbal thing going on, but it might still be coherent. Non-verbal memes might even spread elsewhere, without anybody being able to say exactly what happened.

There are many levels to what is happening. The more you become conscious of patterns, the more likely it is that you're sensing more levels.

You can be in sync with higher levels of the system you're operating in without necessarily being conscious about it. Individual ants don't have to walk around being super-conscious of the whole ant colony. They just do simple stuff and it adds up to a coherent whole. The trouble with us humans is that we have the capability to imagine higher order patterns, but we aren't yet well equipped to get it right. So we might end up working on discordant higher order patterns, even though we each superficially appear to be doing our jobs well.

It reminds me of the idea of holonomics. Developing a sense of patterns on many levels and how they intertwine.

The awareness of patterns and of levels is maybe more important than whether you get it exactly "right". It isn't about great precision, but rather about being approximately in the same ballpark. If you're dancing with a thousand other people, there are many ways of doing it right. Yet, lawn mowers and chain saws and blue whales might not really be in harmony with the action.

Six billion people doing each their own thing doesn't make a healthy civilization. It is a little better if they have a sense of what they are doing and where that is going. Even better if they could sense what patterns they're weaving together. Better yet if most of us were conscious of the patterns of patterns that evolve.

The world is becoming very complicated and complex. The times where single individuals could understand and explain most of what goes on in the world have passed a long time ago. Several hundred years ago, really, and since then the complexity of our information has grown exponentially.

What we need more than a lot of specialists is people who can operate at a higher level. People who can sense patterns within clouds of uncertainty. People who can see the lay of the land, even if in low resolution. If you're too left brain and focused and insistant on accounting for everything, you probably can't. It takes a different kind of peripheral vision to sense the patterns in the whole.

What you're clearly and consciously focused on is just the tip of the iceberg, in several directions. You, yourself, have lots more going on sub-consciously than consciously. If you're not sensing where things are going for you, you're gonna miss your own boat. Same with your role in bigger things, your part in groups you're in, and in the world. What you're immediately focusing on is just one small part of it. Much bigger things are in motion. If you somehow can sense those currents and become a little more conscious of them, you're a lot more likely to do something constructive.

We're all able to sense the coherence of patterns to one degree or another. If you're watching a movie or somebody's telling you a story, you know if it feels right or not. There are many possible variations of good stories, but they tend to have a certain kind of flow and rhythm. They're not just random stuff thrown together. Yet in everyday life we seem remarkably willing to put up with stuff that doesn't fit well together. If we turn up our awareness of the patterns around us, maybe we'll find that we do have more choice about it than we thought.
[ / , | 2010-07-14 13:35 | 17 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Saturday, July 10, 2010day link 

 Strong Elastic Links
picture There's something fundamentally messed up about the way we store and use information. Most of our information connects really badly with related information, and with the stuff the information is about.

I've talked about that before, like here: Connected Information, so I'll try not to repeat myself. It is however, somewhat difficult to convey my point. I've tried writing and rewriting this as an article a couple of times, but left it unfinished. It still isn't coming out very clear, but I'll leave it at that.

I want information to be linked, by unbreakable elastic links, to what the information is about.

The type of links we know on the web are useful, way more useful than no links. But they're but a pathetic shadow of the type of links we potentially could have that truly would be useful and reliable.

I'm sure it is not only me who have found some interesting article on the net or in a magazine about something new and promising. Say, self-driving cars or super-efficient solar cells. And then, months later, when I try to search for information about how that project might be going now, there's no trace of it. Some journalist did some kind of investigative job and wrote about something. On the web it might even include some clickable links to more information, like another article or a company website. When I come back some months later, those might still be there, or they might not. It is quite likely those links would point to some frozen information from that same time period. What happened later might remain a mystery, unless I have the time and resources to do a fresh piece of detective work.

The links we use on the web are like addresses on an envelope that we put in a mailbox. They indicate some kind of coordinates for a recipient. "He's over there!" But he might not be. The address might have changed and become invalid, or it might now be occupied by somebody else who has no relation to the person I'm trying to reach. The links don't follow the target when it moves. Likewise, web links aren't very good at linking up real people or real subjects.

Part of the problem is that the web links are one-way pointers. They just point in the direction of some virtual place. That place doesn't easily know that they're being linked to, because there's no link the other way. So, even if they wanted to, they couldn't easily update others on the status of what they linked to. Even if they could, it would still be a cumbersome thing to do.

Links shouldn't just be some address. They should actually link the two things.

The reason you have problems with spam is because the contents of the e-mail messages you receive don't really link up with anything. There's an address for the sender and the recipient, and addresses for servers that have processed the e-mail. All of that can be arbitrarily made up by anybody, because the e-mail doesn't actually link to the sender and the recipient. It can say all sorts of stuff that isn't at all true, or it can say things that were true at some point, but which go out of date later.

Imagine that you could attach a link to something, and that link, without a doubt, would maintain the connection, no matter what.

For the moment, never mind how it could be done, but imagine that between all people, all groups, all subjects and all media about any of these things, between all of those there would be unbreakable links. Hard links, so to speak, or strong links, but elastic, as they will "stretch" to any length no matter how the nodes move around and transform.

You probably know what school you went to in a certain year. That school is a rather finite entity. It should not be a matter of archaeological detective work to retrieve the information of who the principal was, and what became of any of the teachers or any one of the students. The school was an unmistakable entity. It was there, very physically, it had buildings, it was paid for, it stayed there for a long time. The same with all the people who were there. Every single one was unmistakably a real, living, breathing person. There's really nothing fuzzy about it at all. But in accordance with the way we typically treat information, it has been saved in a very fuzzy manner. If you go search for your school in search engines, there is likely to be some doubt about what school you're talking about, and whether it even exists. It is going to be very hard to locate a list of teachers or a complete list of students, if one exists. The information was kept on pieces of paper, which might have been mislaid or lost or falsified, and maybe never digitized. Even if you found the list, you wouldn't know if it was the right one, and even if you did, it is only a list of names and maybe addresses and maybe a photo. Most of these people have moved, many of them have changed their names, some have died, etc. It would be a huge amount of work to track them down, and you'd probably have to give up on quite a few of them.

We've gotten so used to sloppy, unlinked information that we find it quite natural and normal that information gets lost or that it is hard to reconstruct or that nobody knows if it is true or not. We even find a certain comfort and security in all this fuzziness. There's no government that is sure how many people there are in the country it governs. And that's despite that they really want taxes from all of them, and they don't want illegal immigrants, and everybody needs an ID. And the subject matter, persons, is in no way vague. It isn't difficult to decide if somebody is a person or not. They're very finite and the number of people is finite.

The moment you commit information to little bits of paper and sloppy handwriting and filing cabinets and vague references to other storage places, the game is lost. The link between the information and what it is about is no longer there. It isn't much better if the same system is simulated with computers. Useful information can often be reconstructed, but there's nothing that guarantees that.

In the electronic world, we should by now be able to do much better. There's absolutely no reason to store our information in the same sloppy manner, lists of names and addresses in files that can be lost and falsified, or, worse, in free unstructured text form that also is stored in fairly random places, without real links to the subject matter.

What I'm asking for is, in part, two-way links, as one can pull the string from either side. But it is also unbreakable links, not just pointers. Not just signs that point in the general direction of the other piece of information. Rather, something like an electrical wire. The moment somebody cuts it, an alarm goes off. Or a quantum entanglement kind of mechanism, where you just can't mess with it without it being noticed.

How can one practically implement it? I didn't say I knew how, just that I want it, and that everything we do with information would totally change if we had reliable links. But it is not like it is an unsolvable problem. It would in no way be impossible to provide each living person with a unique encrypted ID code. There are certainly issues of politics and of privacy, and of identity theft, but they could be solved if there were any unified wish to have unique IDs. As it is now, it is in most places a no-brainer to acquire multiple ID numbers or to disappear to somewhere else.

The same applies to things, places, organized groups, subjects, etc. Information is as sloppily kept as for people, or more. A car at least has an ID number, but it is only used by government agencies, not for recording your photos or car trips or anything else.

A lot of stuff might deserve being very loosely joined, but not facts. A piece of information that is or could be a fact when recorded shouldn't later be a matter of searching and guessing. You should know its level of correctness by the way it is linked, not by some forensic text analysis.

Our shared information system has Alzheimer's. Real events instantly get converted into vague guesswork and conjecture and interpretation and stories and remixed soundbites. And then we expect to pour all of that stuff together, have a machine sort it all, and then we'll discover how really smart we are?

We'd probably get somewhere faster if we at least could keep most of the objective stuff straight, and then we could use our imagination and reasoning abilities for more important stuff than merely trying to reconstruct what is going on.
[ | 2010-07-10 13:01 | 17 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

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