Thought Archives

July 8, 2005

Analogy - Definitive or Provocative?

I've seen much discussion about terrorism in the past couple of days. What starts as talking about the recent London transit attacks evolves into a discussion of "WHY?" and I find that people often resort to using analogies to explain terrorist motivations or details of US foreign policy.

In many cases these are not persuasive to the opposite side. Those arguing against the point of view can (and will) always argue that it is not a correct analogy - it does not correctly define the real situation. The Middle East is not a dark street in a bad part of town.

But this doesn't seem to stop analogists from presenting analogies. Why?

I think the reason is that those presenting analogies intend them to be provocative - to provoke thought or examination of the issue. Those arguing against them do not want to be provoked. They consider the analogy to be definitive and if it does not match the specifics of the situation it is to be rejected, or at least that is the strategy they employ in their argument.

As I was writing this another use of analogy came to mind. That is the use of analogy to deceive. In this use they are employed to magnify one aspect and remove or hide the other important aspects. They serve as a proxy for the real situation with all of the messy parts trimmed away, leaving no room for objection... well except the old standby - "that is not a correct analogy".

July 9, 2005


No, no fish in this post, though if I had a nice picture of a tuna I'd post it. What I'm referring to is this survey of addiction to online multiplayer games. I try to avoid computer games of all kinds because I know from experience that they are addictive tools of the devil so I'm not surprised to see the level of addiction. I am a bit surprised to see the amount of time that people spend playing them. It is starting to seem less fantastic that people are actually living inside their machines. It is also interesting to see that people are doing all sorts of different things inside the boxes. Some are even working or playing at working.

My question is how long they can live there before their physical bodies attenuate and atrophy? How long until their fingers are doing all the walking? Well, enough for now. I should go outside.

July 12, 2005

Minds and Milk

"Chance favors the prepared mind" said Pasteur. I'm wondering if perhaps his mind was not pasteurized. Or maybe it was? Is it better to have a sterile controlled mind which can support one pure idea or one which allows yeasts, molds and whatever flies by to colonize it?

August 9, 2005


Is the free ride for Google over? It seems to me that they have reached the point where the goodwill they earned in the past is wearing thin. Their strategy of everything being cute and free and beta was great for drawing attention (and continues to be effective with things like Google Earth), but it might not be as appropriate as they transition from being something fun and useful to being an essential part of the infrastructure. It seems that people have changed their expectations and the fun and colorful image is slowly turning to one of a faceless giant that doesn't respond. Some people are even changing their minds about the relative evil ranking of Microsoft.

Increasingly discussion of Google brings up issues of invasion of privacy, censorship and fears of dependence.

Their management is also being called into question about employment discrimination (regarding pregnancy and age)

How Google handles this new role and assumes (or fails to assume) the new responsibilities which go with it will be interesting. What happens if they continue to be less than transparent and less than responsible? Please note that I am not saying Google is being evil. I'm just saying that their motto "Don't be Evil" only excludes a small category of bad behaviors and leaves things like being greedy, uncaring and irresponsible wide open as possible choices. Does it leave room for another Hello Kitty company to assume the mantle of the beloved? Room for Microsoft to reprise the famous Apple 1984 commercial with an MSN butterfly fluttering it's wings in the Amazon and meanwhile a giant grey screen with 100 zeros shatters somewhere in Mountain View?

I'm not sure. But it is certainly worth looking at. Googlewatch always seemed a bit kooky to me, but they are seeming less so as time goes on.

August 12, 2005

More Myths

Mizuko Ito has a new book out about mobile phones and she offers a PDF of the introduction.
Two things strike me about the introduction. The first is what appears to be a false comparison about US attitudes to mobile communication. For example she states:

In the US, mobile phones are not universally heralded as an "advance", but have continuously been questioned as a problematic technology that erodes personal space"
Sure people are annoyed by rude cell phone users, but the "problem" is not the telephones, but the users themselves. A quick google search shows that there are over 180 million US cell phone users. This is a huge rise from the 1991 base of 7.6 million. I'm willing to bet that people are using cell phones because they like them, not because they are forced to. They do consider them an advance or they would not adopt them at such a rate. It would seem to be the case that they are popular and not seen as problematic except by those who like to complain (hey, maybe people in the US are just more vocal about the problems...nah.) Likewise she dismisses US adoption of text messenging:
"The US, the supposed vanguard of the information society, has been stubbornly resistant to the allures of mobile messaging"
This entirely ignores devices like the Blackberry which is also known as "Crackberry" due to its willing participation in the vice of information addiction. I do not know if the essays within the book are myopic as the introduction, but to me, these examples indicate someone finding precisely what they are looking for and excluding the obvious contradictions. It does not bode well.

The second thing I was struck by was how difficult it is to read. I consider myself to be a pretty good reader so I thought, no, it couldn't be me. So I looked a bit closer. I think I have found the problem. Almost every sentence uses "and" to compound things. One remarkable sentence has the word "And" embedded in it eight times. Beyond mere confusion, the overuse of conjunctions can overload the sentence with meaning because we are forced to accept all the permutations posited. Eight "ands" could imply up to 256 separate particles of meaning. It also has the effect of forcing upon the reader an acceptance they would not normally accept. The reader can agree with one conclusion (or statement) and disagree with the other, yet the sentence structure does not allow this. What could be a lucid examination and introduction to a collection of essays becomes a complex and impenentrably dense jungle of words. Why?

But don't let my words stop you. I'm just pointing out where I think it could be better. I'm sure that in the main it is a great book.

August 16, 2005


Seth gives a story about a 90 year old bank customer who gets carded at her local bank as an example of something that is "clueless". Uh, Seth, maybe she LIKES it and it makes her feel secure.

November 22, 2005

Aphorisms for the Day

"Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world" - Schopenhauer

"Joyous distrust is a sign of health. Everything absolute belongs to pathology" - F. Nietzsche

"A thing 'is' whatever it gives us least trouble to think it is. There is no other 'is' than this" - Samuel Butler

January 19, 2006

Waxing Aphoristic

Tongue Twisting:

"In the land of anecdotes the fork-tongued man is king" - me, 2006

Mmmmmm Bacon:

"Silence is the virtue of fools"
"Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man."
" Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est (knowledge is power)"
Francis Bacon 1561-1627

Just goes to show you what he knows.

February 23, 2006

Where are you sitting today?

Mondrian added a little color to his studio to break things up a bit. In light of this recent research by Elizabeth Gould summarized by Kathy Sierra here:

Creating Passionate Users: Brain death by dull cubicle

it looks like a good idea. It also make me wonder what size a computer screen needs to be before it is considered "the environment". For years I've been thinking that a "desktop" should be about the size of a desktop. And then the question is whether a flat screen can ever replace the variety and challenge that a real three dimensional environment presents to the eye, mind and the body?

I suppose the lesson for us all is to change things around when things start getting stale. Or better yet, take a break from your enviroment once in a while by taking a walk.

March 2, 2006

What if you are not sure?

About anything? The color of your horse, how a computer works, what the new features of project are, who gives god a haircut? Apparently the answers are in short supply as I noticed someone ended up here last night after google suggested that this is a good place to answer that question,are+not+sure+%3F&spell=1

Is the internet the place to find certainty? Isn't it just another fortune telling stand?


Can you trust anything you find here?

How can you ever know?

Historical note on the fortune telling stand - Mikuji: The silver cans have thin sticks in them. You shake out one of the sticks and then look at the label which tells you which drawer to pull your fortune from. After drawing a fortune, if you don't like it, you simply tie the paper onto a stand like this.


You keep the good ones

April 7, 2006

"People come to us in weakness"

In 2003 Sergey Brin of Google told Quentin Hardy:

"People come to us in weakness. They are admitting that they don't know something. When we tell them what they want to know, it creates a strong bond."

Geez. Going to google is a sign of weakness? Imagine what going to the library must mean! Or reading a book!

Since you are here reading, and since I'm ultimately non-entertaining, the only real conclusion I can draw is that you are coming because you don't know something. You are weak. There. Now you know because I told you. Feel the bond? I knew you would.

Despite the arrogant attitude this quotation projects, the article it is drawn from is not too bad. It contains some amount of over-conjecture, but you can filter it yourself. The entire article which covers google, information and the "collective mind" is here:
Can we know everything?

July 12, 2006

Freakonomics and Critical Thinking

Yes, I know, the book "Freakonomics" came out YEARS ago. But I am just reading it for the first time. There are several things I like about it.

It is at its heart an ode to skepticism. In my opinion this is a worthy thing. There are many things which are unexamined in this world and it seems to me that the foundations of many critical issues often go unexamined. Sometimes they are clouded in mystery intentionally. Being able to cut through this and see clearly what the real relationships are is an essential skill, and the first step in learning it is to understand that it is possible. This book gives some examples of where it is possible and reveals some of the value in doing so (catching cheating teachers, placing your attention on real rather than supposed risks ...)

The book also provides some realistic examples of how causation and coorelation are two different things. Breaking the two apart is the first step in removing superstitious behavior and moving beyond just trying things which might have worked before in a different situation. Even with the very light treatment given to the statistical methods used, the book points out that it is something which is possible and something that can be valuable to examine. This sort of critical thinking is the biggest defense against the propaganda which I find is increasingly common in the world.

The biggest failing I see in this book is that it fails to point out the real heart of the "thinking" method that Levitt uses, a critical examination of the model that is being used. Time and time again he talks about analysis and conventional wisdom, but fails to make the connection that conventional wisdom is based on an incomplete or incorrect model of realities. He also fails to point out the possible errors or inevitable omissions in his own models. Analysis is nothing unless your model is constructed correctly. And all models are abstractions to one degree or another. Skillfully building those models and understanding the factors which influence behaviors is a skill which is in short supply and which results in any number of bad decisions. Of course, it is impossible for a single person to question everything and build a model to support all of their thoughts, but it is possible to show people how that models posed by others should be examined for veracity and completeness. Spending a bit of time on the fundamentals would be worthwhile in my opinion, though it might make it much less of a quick read - something the millions of readers of this book certainly appreciate.

OK, I just lied. The biggest failing of the book iin the presence of the insanely effusive paeans to Levitt's big brain which are interspersed with the chapters and are plastered all over the dust jacket. Things like "Levitt is considered a demigod", "The most brilliant young economist in America" and "Steven Levitt has the most interesting mind in America" litter the pages. Why? Shouldn't the work speak for itself?

July 24, 2006

Monday Monday

It is aphorism week here at Project. Too hot for anything else.

"Everything that is written merely to please the author is worthless" Pascal
"Experience is the name everyone gives to his mistakes" Oscar Wilde

Feel free to suggest your own favorites.

July 25, 2006

Drawing Conclusions

Yesterday's article on the proposed PMI Practice Standard for Scheduling got me thinking about what value there is in complying with their standard. Is it better to include everything but the kitchen sink? Is it not?

Samuel Butler says:

Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.


Aphorism week continues through Friday

July 27, 2006

The Beginning of Error

"The beginning of error may be, and mostly is, from private persons, but the maintainer and continuer of error is the multitude" Sir James Hales

James Hales was famous for a couple of things, contesting Henry VIII's will and for his "self-murder". The judge deciding whether his property should be forfeit to the monarchy upon his death (suicide was cause for forfeiture of the estate at the time) famously wrote:

"Sir James Hales was dead, and how came he to his death? by drowning; and who drowned him? Sir James Hales; and when did he drown him? in his lifetime. So that Sir James Hales, being alive, caused Sir James Hales to die; and the act of the living man was the death of the dead man. He therefore committed felony in his lifetime, although there was no possibility of the forfeiture being found in his lifetime, for until his death there was no cause of forfeiture."

Aphorism week continues through Friday

July 28, 2006

Inventing the new new thing

"When it seems that a new man or a new school has invented a new thing, it will only be found that the gifted among them have secured a firmer hold than usual of some old thing." Walter Sickert

Walter Sickert was a British Impressionist painter, not a TOC critic. He is perhaps most famous due to speculations that he was "Jack the Ripper".

So ends aphorism week. I need to think of a new thing for next week.

October 25, 2006

And now for something completely different

Dr. Nakamats "Inventor of the Floppy Disk":

What I find most interesting is the concept that being 0.5 seconds away from death is the trigger for creativity. He achieves this through submersion in a tank of water.

I find the claim that lack of oxygen in the brain triggers some activity to be somewhat plausible. It fits with my belief that a portion of creativity is synthesis - the joining of two different themes or thoughts - and with the idea that sparking this sort of activity may be facilitated when the brain is operating out of its normal mode. But what really has me wondering is how he knows he is 0.5 seconds from death. What if you are off by a few tenths or linger just a bit too long getting the spark to ignite the tinder? Could it just be hyperbole?

January 16, 2007

"The past is a different country, and it's better to collect the postcards than to actually visit!"

Found today's title from a comment over on Matt's site.
The attribution is to one "LanguageHat" who is far too literary for me to keep up with.

Some other thoughts on the subject:
"Things ain't what they used to be and probably never was." - Will Rogers
“I don't like nostalgia unless it's mine.” - Lou Reed
"He who praises the past blames the present." - Unknown.

The older you get the more obvious nostalgia becomes, especially the nostalgia of those of a later generation, which your own memory (if you have any left) exposes as being an exaggeration at best. But then what is the harm?

Longfellow called describe nostalgia as "A feeling of sadness and longing that is not akin to pain, and resembles sorrow only as the mist resembles the rain."

Nice, sweet even. Just don't drive under the influence of it.

January 27, 2007

Principles vs. Rules

On the Critical Chain Project Management group I was suspected of being unprincipled because I made some disparaging remarks about rules (My view is that operating based on rules is less effective than operating on principles. Project Management is not one-size fits all.).

It prompted me to clear up some of the definitional issues. So first a few definitions I'm sympathetic with. First Rule:

  • A prescribed guide for conduct or action
  • An authoritative statement of what may or may not be done.
  • Dominion: dominance or power through legal authority.
  • Convention: something regarded as a normative example.

Next Principle:

  • A fundamental basis for action.
  • A fundamental truth as a basis of reasoning.
  • A fundamental doctrine, truth or motivating force upon which something is based.
  • A basic truth or law or assumption.

I've left out a number of definitions which state that a principle is a rule because, well, Humpty Dumpty said it best:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

The definition is rather slippery. Here are some more thoughts on it:

"A principle internally motivates you to do the things that seem good and right. People develop principles by living with people with principles and seeing the real benefits of such a life. A rule externally compels you, through force, threat or punishment, to do the things someone else has deemed good or right. People follow or break rules. - source
"Principles are riverbeds, rules are pipelines." -source
"* rules: set limits, are a basis for exclusion, enable to us to argue right and wrong
* principles: are a basis for us to grow and expand, are a basis for inclusion, enable us to learn from differences." - source

My real point in this is that a set of project management rules is initially derived from a set of principles. It would be unusual for them to just be made up on a whim. They are perfectly valid and sound in the environment they grew up in, but sometimes they take on a life of their own and the fundamental principle behind them may fade from memory. Principles (in principle) are unchanging, but the environments that they exist in can be very diverse and a rule developed in one environment to achieve the desired actions may bring different actions in a different environment.

In practice, we often mix rules and principles in a single system. For example in Theory of Constraints the underlying principle is to focus on the constraint (identifying, exploiting, subordinating other processes to it, elevating it). A perfectly reasonable and useful principle. As this principle was put into action a number of rules of thumb came about. Some revolve around the mechanics - sizing of a project buffer for example, some are concerned about implementation - the rule that TOC must be adopted across the whole organization as another example, but my contention is that the "rules" should be reviewed and possibly adjusted for each different environment they are applied in. And when a rule does NOT comply with the principles, it should be eliminated or revised.

Rejecting or challenging or examining a rule in this situation does not indicate a lack of principle, rather it is a sign of attention to principle. Those who speak loudest about the tyranny of rules are often the most principled of all.

One quick way to determine if you have a principle or a rule is to ask "why?". If your explanation takes more than a sentence or two, then you have a rule.

January 29, 2007

Quote of the day

"Having a family member who is in politics, I've learned that whenever you see what seems like a religious fundamentalism there usually is a quest for money and/or power behind it." Source: Dare Obasanjo

March 28, 2007



Yesterday morning I was cleaning off my hard drive. I picked out a folder which I thought had nothing of interest in it. I hit delete with prejudice. Last night I wondered what happened to my photos of Seattle...

I guess the bright side is that I'll be there again sometime.

It brings to mind a conversation I had a couple weeks ago with someone who has their entire email history stored somewhere somehow. I was making the point that although I share the tendency to pack that information away in case I need it someday, there really is very little of it that I will ever look at again. Email really does have a very short shelf life and the endless stream of new email allows no time to linger longingly on meeting minutes from 1997.

I learned to keep all those things from being in an environment where litigation was likely and email and faxes and contracts had some evidential value. You can't just hit the delete key and hope it all goes away. Some of it I kept because it was new to me and I thought I might refer back to it at some future time or perhaps I put a lot of time and effort into it, or perhaps I was just lazy, or over cautious. Much of my mail nowadays is interesting but ephemeral.

Still it gives me some psychic pain to delete something interesting and potentially useful that lands in my mail box. One thing which eases this pain is knowing that someone else out there was the source of that information and as long as I know that person I have a link back to the information. Or in some cases the information is stored out in the cloud. Usenet posts have a lifetime longer than the average computer. lets me look back and see what used to be.

So far, I've just been talking about the cost of deleting things, I haven't talked about the benefits. There is some cost benefit. Hard disk space gets cheaper every second, but is still not yet free. Searching and finding space needles in the evermounting haystack has a time and computing cost. As things get better this cost approaches 0 but never quite gets there. You save almost nothing in cost by keeping everything

So where IS the benefit of hitting the delete key found?

The value is found in looking forward rather than backward. I don't know how to measure it, but I think the value is immense.

So here are my packrat rules for information storage:

  • Keep the keys - links to important places people etc.
  • Put the good work on a shelf somewhere you can find it again. A central library is a good idea here.
  • Print out contracts.
  • Put raw material that you need for a temporary endeavor in a separate well-named folder so you can find it and dispose of it when you have created something useful out of it.
  • Forward the rest to a friend who keeps everything
  • Hit the delete key with impunity.

I can't say that I actually do all of this, but I am trying.

For related information on the perils of living in the present look here: Attention Interface

July 29, 2009

Two Landscapes


Flying is a different way to look at the world. For much of it (passing through security, waiting at the gate, boarding etc.) I wish I could close my eyes and make it go away, but the view through the window sometimes redeems the whole flight.

But even that is not for certain. The clouds may present a featureless prarie or snowfield hiding the world below. Flying out of San Francisco this is often the case as cool fog covers everything. Other times a dull haze washes everything out. Some days though the landscape above and the landscape below each present themselves and make that window seat worthwhile.

Click on image to go and see a bigger version

September 4, 2009

Search Frustration? Maybe you are doing it wrong

I just read this blog post about being frustrated by search because it does not solve a user's problem. John Battelle writes:

But the next step is the harder one. I am not “smart” about how to buy a classic car. I don’t know enough to buy one with confidence. I don’t know what to ask about. I don’t know if it’s good or bad that an engine, electrical system, or transmission is original or rebuilt. I don’t know how one model does versus another in resale value, or insurance cost or…well, you get the picture. There’s a lot to consider, and I don’t know how to value everything. The world of classic cars is complex, like most major decisions. In short, there’s no easy way to decide in this case

In this case his problem is he is not "smart". But can a simple search make you smarter? Or move you any closer to your goal? I'm reminded of the old joke where a man rubbing a lamp finds a genie and commands "Make me a Martini". The next panel would show the man to be composed of gin, vermouth and an olive. A single simple request is just too ambiguous to respond to. And to be honest, anyone who has searched for any length of time has learned that you MUST put in enough information to have the search engine help you.

My point here is that to solve any complex problem, and looking up something on Wikipedia is not a complex problem, the problem must be explored and defined sufficiently before it can be solved. As a consultant I find this to be what I spend much of my time on. The client request may be simple: "We want to do X". But to get to a solution of that problem involves understanding the current situation (in John's car example - what level of expertise does the user already possess), understanding the end result (what does doing "X" do for you), understanding the tolerances around the solution (would "W' or "Y" be good enough?), and understanding what effort the client wants to expend on achieving that result (In John's classic car example, is he actually going to read all this stuff and track down the right kind of hose clamps? or is he just having fun imagining how nice it would be to own a classic car). The typical search box on a search engine does not allow this sort of input which is essential to giving an appropriate response. And knowing your search history, which may help to some extent, is still never going to understand your intent.

I don't know why using a search engine should lead to frustration any more than one would be frustrated by the responses from the magic 8 ball. Becoming a professional tennis player requires more than a trip to the library, Becoming a classic car expert requires more than a couple visits to Bing or Google. Imagining that it would be otherwise is apparently a recipe for frustration.

That said, perhaps the way search engines can help is by training people to search better. Give them search strategies which work. But I doubt that will help much. Like owning a classic car, most of the fun is in figuring it out yourself.

There is another issue embedded in the same post, that of making decisions, valuations and tradeoffs. It is probably a discussion for another time, but it all hinges on the quality of the information. In a world where information quality is uneven and can be gamed, I think this may be another windmill being tilted at.

September 29, 2009

Ideas about Ideas

An idea isn't responsible for the people who believe it.
~Don Marquis

A half-baked idea is okay as long as it's in the oven.
~Author Unknown

The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas, and throw the bad ones
~Linus Pauling

Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have.
~Emile Chartier

An idea not coupled with action will never get any bigger than the brain
cell it occupied.
~Arnold H. Glasgow

About Thought

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to Project in the Thought category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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