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“We’re headed for a disaster of biblical proportions!”

Jeremy Grantham has been doing the math, and is convinced that world resources are way insufficient to support the current population.

Grantham believes that the planet can only sustainably support about 1.5 billion humans, versus the 7 billion on Earth right now (heading to 10-12 billion). For all of history except the last 200 years, the human population has been controlled via the limits of the food supply. Grantham thinks that, eventually, the same force will come into play again.

This is where we should be innovating – how do we match the level of resources to the (growing) need? Space travel is the old school sci-fi remedy: let’s go to Mars!

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Where ideas come from

Wired News hosts a conversation between Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson, who’ve written similar books… Steven – Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation; and Kevin – What Technology Wants.

Steven “finds that great creative milieus, whether MIT or Los Alamos, New York City or the World Wide Web, are like coral reefs—teeming, diverse colonies of creators who interact with and influence one another.”

Kevin “believes “technology can be seen as a sort of autonomous life-form, with intrinsic goals toward which it gropes over the course of its long development. Those goals, he says, are much like the tendencies of biological life, which over time diversifies, specializes, and (eventually) becomes more sentient…”

I’m glad Kevin and Steven are making the “hive mind” point, a rationale for softening rigid proprietary systems and encouraging collaboration and interaction… sez Steven: “innovation doesn’t come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.” Great ideas emerge from scenes, the solitary inventors are just catalysts for the execution (no mean feat, though).

Weed it and reap!

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One continuous mistake: single-minded effort

This came in via Tricycle Magazine’s “Daily Dharma” today:

Several years ago, a sociologist studied students in a neurosurgery program to see what qualities separated those who succeeded from those who failed. He found ultimately that two questions in his interviews pointed to the crucial difference. He would ask the students, “Do you ever make mistakes? If so, what is the worst mistake you’ve ever made?” Those who failed the program would inevitably answer that they rarely made mistakes or else would blame their mistakes on factors beyond their control. Those who succeeded in the program not only admitted to many mistakes but also volunteered information on what they would do not to repeat those mistakes in the future.

Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi has a relevant comment in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

When we reflect on what are doing in our everyday life, we are always ashamed of ourselves. One of my students wrote to me saying, “You sent me a calendar, and I am trying to follow the good mottoes which appear on each
page. But the year has hardly begun, and already I have failed!” Dogen-zenji said,’ ‘Shoshaku jushaku.” Shaku generally means “mistake” or “wrong.” Shoshaku jushaku means “to succeed wrong with wrong,” or one continuous mistake. According to Dogen, one continuous mistake can also be Zen. A Zen master’s life could be said to be so many years of shoshaku jushaku. This means so many years of one single-minded effort.

Admitting your mistakes is being real. Only by living with and learning from your mistakes can you advance your thinking. How can this play out in daily life? I’ve found that meetings I’m in are more productive if I’m willing to contribute thoughts that might be wrong. By offering unfiltered ideas that might be “mistakes,” I have often advanced the discussion toward productive decisions and solutions.

A mistake can be seen, then, as productive exploration.

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Link Coworking

Last Thursday, the day after Austin was swept by a tropical Texas frog-strangler, I met with Liz Elam and toured her new coworking facility, called Link Coworking. It’s on Anderson Lane, across the street from old Northcross Mall and near the Village Cinema ( 2700 W. Anderson Lane, Ste. 205 ). Liz’s facility will have access to an outside deck for parties, like the October 15 Grand Opening (6pm-9pm). 

Coworking is the wave of the present, and I expect and hope to see many more coworking facilities opening in Austin. (I spent a lot of time at Conjunctured on East 7th, but if you add the capacities of Conjunctured, Link, Texas Coworking, Tech Ranch, and any others that might be brewing or launching, you’re still just scratching the need for informal, low-cost business spaces. (Liz noted that her space would be less tech-focused than Conjunctured).

The rains last week revealed one interesting feature of Liz’s new facility: the roof leaked like a sieve. The place was drying out with multiple fans and the roof was under repair when I visited.

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Pay attention

I ran across A.O. Scott’s video review of Errol Morris’s “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control,” a documentary that weaves together interviews with four men who have an “endless, absorbing facination with what they do.” It’s clear that the four – a lion trainer, a topiary sculptor, a mole rat specialist, and a robot scientist – focus much, probably most of their concentration on their particular endeavor.

As so often happens with me, I was already thinking about attention when I found this particular data point that brought my thinking into focus. I had just been reading an article about Texas Tribune’s recent QRANK Live event, which I sadly missed – sadly because I’m a QRANK addict and was signed up intending to go. QRANK is a game you can play once a day via iPhone, iPad, or Facebook. It’s a quiz where you respond to fifteen out of twenty multiple choice questions that are presented. The questions are categorized (Entertainment, Science and Nature, Literature, History and Place, Life, Business and Government, Sports) but the categories are broad, so they’re all over the map. Successful players are eclectic, have read broadly, have heads full of random inconsistent facts. I’m often surprised at what people know (or know enough to guess correctly). I’m an average player, though a few years ago I would have been much better, but I’ve become more focused lately. I often say that “my head’s too full,” but I expose myself less often to facts I don’t seem to need and more on facts that are relevant to my work in specific areas.

The four guys in the Morris documentary probably would not have done well with QRANK. They’re also very focused on what they do, and that focus makes them very effective. But it also makes it less likely that they’re soaking up trivia.

You may think I’m going to say I think this narrow focus is better, that real genius involves focus and concentration on “just one thing.” But I’m actually concerned that a narrow focus constrains creativity. I find that when I do cast my net more widely, I find connections and synergies that I would miss if I was always narrowly focused. What’s important is balance: be focused on what you do but allow time for exploration.

Related to this is the problem of attention, and I think that’s where we really have an issue. I just spent 3-4 years studying and thinking about social media, which meant that I was also using social media more and more. Much of the activity so categorized is happening on Twitter, which I refer to as “drive by” conversation. Twitter conditions us to share and take small chunks or packets of diverse information. Thought many attempt conversation via Twitter, real conversatons via microblog form are fragmented and constrained. Facebook is similar – in its activity streams longer conversations do break out, and are still more coherent, but they’re still short bursts, all over the map, and we’re in and out of them quickly.

I find value in Twitter and Facebook conversations, and I appreciate the fact that I can sustain so many relationships, ranging from strong to weak connections, in those spaces. I’m a social media advocate and strategist, and I think we’re evolving a rather amazing environment for all sorts of productive communication and organization that were never possible before. I could go on about this at length.

But the point I’m getting to today is that we need balance. We need to work on our sustained attention and have places to go for sustained, coherent conversations. I’m personally working to manage my attention, be disciplined and focused, without losing the value of random online exploration and the power of serendipity.

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Blogchat and mutation

It’s hard to scale conversations beyond some manageable number of participants. Christopher Allen, in an excellent article on Dunbar’s number and other potential limits of social scale, argues that the optimimum limit is around 5-9 participants, possibly as many as 12.

In last night’s #blogchat on Twitter, I saw an example of attempted conversation beyond any reasonable scale, yet it did kind of work in that participants felt they were getting value from the conversation, and were excited and stimulated by the firehose of tweets and retweets.

I’m not sure “chat” is exactly the right word for this kind of conversational explosion where it’s difficult to track specific comments and ideas. In the Tweetchat application, a dozen or more comments would appear every few seconds. My experience was one of zeroing in a best I could, tracking only a fraction of the conversation. That’s the way Twitter generally works, anyway, as you scale up – you’ can’t hope to follow everything that’s said, so you dip in and out of the stream of expression. It’s nonlinear, chaotic; what I sometimes refer to as “drive-by conversation.” It feels very ADD. On the other hand, it’s stimulating, and I never fail to learn from these conversations, however disjointed they may seem.

I thought the experience would be more poweful as an asynchronous forum – that Twitter might not be the right tool for this kind of conversation. I posted so: “I wish we had this same group talking in an asynchronous forum to facilitate attention and focus.” Someone responded “That’s what the transcript is for – attention & focus.” So this is more like a blast of ideas, a group brainstorm, not quite a conversation, if you assume that conversation is sustained and coherent exchange of ideas, somewhat linear and trackable.

My concluding point is that we’re creating new ways of communicating that don’t necessarily acknowledge presumed limits of scale. We can say that meaningful conversation or teamwork has a limit of a dozen particpants, but we’re pushing that envelope hard. Same with Dunbar’s number, “a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships,” presumably 150. The Wikipedia article for Dunbar’s numbers says”this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.” Maybe we’ll see a neocortical mutation as we friend and follow many hundreds or thousands of people and attempt to manage ever larger numbers of “stable” relationships.

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Reworking meetings?

I downloaded a sample of the new Jason Fried/David Heinemeier Hansson book, Rework, which will doubtless find its way onto my reading pile – seems like good pithy bits of advice we can all use. However I zeroed in on the “meetings are toxic” section, and tweeted something about how that view suggests someone who doesn’t know how to have meetings. But it really suggests the frustration of someone who’s been victimized by others who don’t know how to have meetings. And even people who know how will sometimes screw up – I’ve subverted a few of my own meetings, for instance.

It’s useless to rail against meetings as toxic, just try to have better meetings. In fact, the authors acknowledge that point, but only after venting. Examples:

“They’re usually about words and abstract concepts, not real things.” But life is like that, no? When we’re not doing zazen, we stumble into conceptual states of mind, samsara, and everybody’s weaving a bit of that web, and you don’t cut through it by pretending it isn’t there. The meeting should be the knife that slices through the fog and finds reality and clarity. If you don’t know how to do that, your meetings might be unproductive, if not toxic, but that’s a problem of organization, not a problem with meetings per se.

“They usually convey an abysmally small amount of information per minute.” Yes indeed – this frustrates me, too… meetings where the people in the room are saying the same thing over and over. Department of Redundancy Department. But I had a flash of insight while sitting in one of these – there were people in the room who needed that redundancy for knowledge they were acquiring to sink in. Meetings can be slow because some participants need them to be slow. Quick thinkers may be frustrated, but there’s where a commitment to group process takes priority.

“They drift off- subject easier than a Chicago cab in a snowstorm.” That’s true, if the meeting doesn’t have an effective leader to keep things on track. The solution for this problem is implicit.

“They require thorough preparation that most people don’t have time for.” So you shouldn’t have meetings because they require preparation? That seems out of kilter to me. If nobody needs the meeting, then the preparation is a waste of time. But if people need the meeting in order to synchronize their efforts or get clarity about something, do you really want to blow if off because preparation’s a hassle?

“They frequently have agendas so vague that nobody is really sure of the goal.” So write a clear agenda, no?

There’s a couple more, but you get the point. It’s easy to complain about meetings, because they do have failings, but the better move is to say how to make them effective and productive.

In fact, Fried and Hansson do have some recommendations – set a timer and end meetings whether everyone’s done or not is one. So if the people in the room haven’t quite worked it out, and the timer goes off, they’re SOL.

Invite as few people as possible is another, and I totally agree. Why invite anybody who doesn’t need to be there? Have a clear agenda, start with a specific problem, both good. Meeting at the site of the problem is a recommendation that might not be practical. End with a solution and assigned responsibility, also good. Action items.

One that’s surprisingly missing, that I learned many years ago: don’t call the meeting unless there’s a reason. (Standing meetings for checkins can be an exception, and monthly organizational meetings where there’s always something to address).

My bottom line is that meetings are not inherently toxic. And you gotta have ’em. I think I would’ve reworked that section of Rework. (Bet the rest of the book is great!)

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SXSW 2010 Notes: Universities in the Era of Free

I think what’s happening with universities today reflects what’s happening in other fields – journalism, other forms of publishing including the music industry, energy, manufacturing, retail, the old doctom era, etc. Things are just changing everywhere. Old business models aren’t working.

The presenters here, Glenn Platt and Peg Faimon, note that the university has been an enduring institution but it’s resting on its laurels and has to think about changing. They described an image, taken from Daniel Quinn but we’ve all seen it, of a peddling flying machine attempting a takeoff over a cliff, having that momentary sensation of flying but actually falling. Higher education is facing unparalleled crisis, tectonic changes. Universities are in a state of collapse. Some entrepreneurs are doing well in this space, but the traditional universities are crumbling.

The speakers went on to convey some lists…

What are universities for?
1) Convey knowledge
2) Create knowledge (research)
3) Develop the (well-rounded, not just professional) person.
4) Contribute to society, at levels both local and global.
5) Have a “signal ability” – higher education as a signaling model, signaling the quality of a person coming out of the institution. This is a validation: “I’m smart because I have a degree.”
6) Seed innovation, working with industry.

But the system’s breaking down:
1) Costs are too high. Tuition is becoming too expensive for common enrollment, the University’s out of reach for some, yet schools are still in the red. I.e. they can’t charge enough to sustain their activities.
2) “You have to go to the mountain” and prostrate yourself to the guru in order to get single-centered knowledge.
3) There’s no control over the clock. You have to do it over the university’s timetable (~6 yrs.) and schedule.
4) The experts are local. You can only access the teachers on your campus. Expertise lies in networks – higher education finds that disturbing.
5) Universities change “one funeral at a time.” Because of tenure, professors aren’t judged by productivity. There’s no sense of market pressures. Change management is difficult.
6) Faculties hire people just like themselves.

What’s driving the breakdown? Tectonic change:
1) Change in learning styles. People learn differently now. They way they manifest themselves has changed.
2) Collapse of disciplinary structure: “know more and more about less and less until they know nothing” – against the tendency today to be broad AND deep.
3) Acceleration of K-12, where people are learning things previously taught in college. “Senior to sophomore” – seniors are testing out of the freshman year at collage, starting with a full year of credit. This has a negative impact on some curricula that depend on that first year to lay a foundation.
4) Networking technologies are flattening hierarchies.
5) Students and parents as consumers – there’s more of a consumer mind set in determining about schools to attend and what to study.
6) Employers are more active in developing curricula, companies have more influence. There’s more of a market focus, but universities don’t do this well.
7) Location independence.
8) The Internet.

Entrepreneurs stepping in – disruptions:
1) Open Courseware, various online learning opportunities including those at MIT, Itunes University, LectureFox, NPR Forum Network, TED, Open Culture, Research Channel, etc.
2) Textbooks more accessible online, via Google Books, Flat World, Textbook Revolution, Course Smart, etc. There’s also Cramster.com, GradeGuru.com, ShareNotes.com, etc. And there’s University of the People, a tuition-free online university. Also OpenUniversity in the UK. And the University of Phoenix currently has 150,000 MBA students.

How does the traditional university evolve? The professor of the future is….
1) Experience designer.
2) Project manager.
3) Angel investor – identify resources and solve problems, map the road to success.
4) Curator – find and make sense of the wealth of free information online. What’s more and less valuable?
5) Resource allocator.
6) Life coach.
7) Validator (as with the signaling model)

Where to begin. These recommendations are about bigger picture thinking, more holistic approaches, working across disciplines, being grounded in the “real” world, etc.  Internet/social  technology is an enabler.
1) Experiential learning. Interdisciplinary, project-based courses. Resume builders that also teach how to deal with ambiguity.
2) Multi-institutional collaborations. Need to engage with one another, think globally, maximize resources of each institution. Study-abroad programs are included here. Branch campuses.
3) Train PhDs to think more contextually. PhD’s are thoroughly trained in their specific subjects, but there are no classes that teach PhDs how to teach, or how to be contextual. (I assume what they mean by “be contextual” is look at, think about, and present facts in context, rather than divorced from context).
4) Strategic industry and non-profit partnerships: “we all need each other.”
5) Get rid of tenure. (This is evidently a big issue for Platt.)
6) Student-driven inquiry.
7) Facilitate collaboration.
8) De-privilege institutional content – the Creative Commons/Science Commons idea of making data and other content shareable and usable  across institutions.
9) Reward failure. Get rid of the doctrine of “publish or perish.” Allow time to fail and innovate.
10) Get rid of Departments and focus on Questions. Bennington is  doing this, according to the speakers, and I found this idea particularly intriguing and challenging. This would drive multidisciplinary approaches. Teaches students how to ask and answer questions – presumably how to find the right questions, too. Kevin Leahy would like this (http://knowledgeadvocate.com).
11) Think like an entrepreneur.
12) Give more than you get.
13) Hire people that think this way.

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Personal Kanban 101

I heard Jim Benson talk about Personal Kanban on the Yi-Tan conference call, and thought it was a cool idea, but didn’t really get into it – “I already have todo lists, etc., and I’m getting things done, do I need this?” But my load keeps increasing, it’s harder to sort out, and the todo list lacks depth. A week ago I finally pulled out an easel and set up a basic personal kanban with backlog, work in progress, and completed work columns. Visualizing my workflow and limiting my work in progress has already had a powerful impact. For one, I could see clearly what was in my “todo” queue that was urgent but not critical, and it was easier to separate nice-to-do volunteery things from income-producing work – priorities are much clearer.

Here’s a slideshare that explains the basics: