Thoughts from the Soulard Idea Market (finally)

It’s been almost two weeks since the Soulard Idea Market got together and I’ve been thinking about it, and what I should write about it, ever since. Having just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin and about half-way through Blaine McCormick’s adaption of Franklin’s Autobiography when I first heard of the Soulard Idea Market, I couldn’t help but think of the Junto, described here by Franklin:

In the autumn of 1727, I organized most of my educated friends into a club of mutual improvement which we called the Junto. We gathered together every Friday evening, and our meetings were governed by a set of formal rulues so that our time would not digress into mere gossip or pointless disputation. …

The rules stated that one member would serve as chief facilitator during our debates, and that these were to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry. We were to seek truth, avoiding both the temptation toward dispute or victory. …

Our club for mutual improvement lastes for several decades and was the best school of philosophy, morality, and politics that then existed in Pennsylvania.

The Soulard Idea Market was not nearly as structured as Franklin’s Junto, and it remains to be seen if it will last decades, but the inaugural meeting definitely lived up to my expectation as a forum for people to get together and discuss worthy topics. As Dennis Kennedy put it,

…there were some great conversations, all happening at the idea layer, not the social chit-chat layer.

This was helped along by Matt Homann‘s use of “idea speed dating.” Basically, the group split up into pairs and then discussed whatever topic Matt presented. After about 2 minutes (most people seemed reluctant to discuss an idea for only 2 minutes), everyone paired up with someone else to discuss a different idea. Occurring toward the beginning of the evening, this was a definite ice-breaker and a way to get people engaged in some in-depth conversation (not the typical social networking fare). It also helped propel the conversation for the rest of the evening.

I’m not sure when the next meeting of the Soulard Idea Market will be. I’m hoping it will become a regular occurrence here in St. Louis. Not once-a-week regular like Franklin’s Junto, but every other month or so would be great. If you live in, or close to, St. Louis I highly recommend making time for this.
For some more impressions on the inaugural Soulard Idea Market, check out comments from Randy Holloway, Dennis Kennedy, and Matt Homann.

XBox 360 game development made easy(er)

In some fields, achieving – or even attempting – mastery is very difficult. Developing video games for today’s consoles and PCs falls into that category. Part of it is the creativity, the ability to come up with a novel idea or game play system that will attract players. And part of it is the technology. Modern game development is nothing if not a technical skill, requiring an understanding of hardware, processors, memory utilization, graphics, and some significant math skills, not to mention some understanding of programming and software development.

Even if you have the ability and drive to master these things, though, game development has been out of reach for most people because of the high cost of the tools needed to pull it all together. Until now, that is. Microsoft announced this past weekend that they are releasing the XNA Game Studio Express to help overcome the cost obstacle.

In the 30 years of video game development, the art of making console games has been reserved for those with big projects, big budgets and the backing of big game labels. Now Microsoft Corp. is bringing this art to the masses with a revolutionary new set of tools, called XNA Game Studio Express, based on the XNA™ platform. XNA Game Studio Express will democratize game development by delivering the necessary tools to hobbyists, students, indie developers and studios alike to help them bring their creative game ideas to life while nurturing game development talent, collaboration and sharing that will benefit the entire industry.

In his book The Children’s Machine, author Seymour Papert wrote, “If you play a computer game, you should be able to write a computer game.” As I’ve mentioned before, the tool itself can not make a master. But I think this tool is a good start for helping those who want to write their own games get off on the right foot. I wonder if the other consoles will offer something similar?

(Thanks to Randy Holloway for the heads up.)

Unreasonable Request: Pokemon Box and Colosseum Promo Disk

At the Soulard Idea Market last week (about which Randy Holloway has written and I am going write), Matt Homann introduced the concept of the ‘unreasonable request,’ which he in turn picked up from Lisa Haneberg. In the (un)conference setting of the Idea Market, each person was offered the opportunity to post a request on the wall, and every one else had the opportunity to look at these requests and act on them (or not).

At the time of the gathering, I couldn’t think of anything that really fell into that category. After some interesting discussions with my son this past weekend, however, I have come upon an ‘unreasonable request’ that I’m hoping someone can assist with.

Actually, this is a two part request, the parts being related but unique:

1. Can you help me find somewhere (or someone) where I can get a copy of the US version of Pokemon Box for Nintendo Game Cube?

  • Pokemon Box is no longer available (at least as far as I could see) at the Pokemon Center.
  • There are non-US versions of Box on e-Bay and other sites, but I’ve not seen a US version
  • The guys at the local game shop had never heard of Pokemon Box.

2. Can you help me find someone who has a copy of the Pokemon Colosseum Promo Disk (again for Nintendo Game Cube) and is willing to part with it for free (or next to free)?

  • This is available on e-Bay and other sites, but for quite a bit more than I’d like to fork out.
  • I asked at the local game shop, figuring their prices might be a bit better than on e-Bay, but they don’t deal in Promo Disks (though they said they’d keep an eye out).

The purpose of this request, if you’re not familiar with the world of Pokemon, is the elusive goal of “Gotta catch ’em all!”

If would like to respond to this request (either part), please drop a note in the comments or feel free to drop me an e-mail at nsl@gbrettmiller.com.

Tools do not a master make

No tool of modern technology is as universally used, and almost as universally reviled, in the world of business and government as is Microsoft PowerPoint. Perhaps most famous of the PowerPoint bashers is Edward Tufte, writer of several books and essays on information design. (I was fortunate enough to attend one of his courses in the late ’90s, his poster of Napoleon’s March to Moscow still hangs on the wall in my office.)

Tufte has described his issues with PowerPoint in magazine articles (such as PowerPoint is Evil in Wired magazine), in a self-published essay entitled The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, and in a chapter in his latest book Beautiful Evidence. In the past week or so a few others have also lambasted PowerPoint, including Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge in a couple of posts (Festival of Bureaucratic Hyper-Rationalism and Tufte and PowerPoint) and Scott Adams (via Dilbert).

Don Norman, of the Nielsen Norman Group, has a different take on PowerPoint. In his essay In Defense of PowerPoint, Norman places the blame not on PowerPoint but on those who use it improperly. “Don’t blame the problem on the tool.” Or, put another way – PowerPoint doesn’t bore people, people bore people. Cliff Atkinson is another who believes that PowerPoint can be used effectively. For some great ideas check out the Beyond Bullets blog or Atkinson’s book Beyond Bullet Points.

Of course, this problem is not limited to the world of business. One of the big promises of ever faster and more powerful consumer technology (if we are to believe marketing campaigns) is that everyone will be able to perform like an expert. Take, for example, the following pitch for Apple’s GarageBand software (emphasis is mine):

The new video track in GarageBand makes it easy to add an original music score to your movies. And don’t worry about your musical talent — or lack thereof. Just use GarageBand’s included loops, or try a combination of loops, software instruments, or any previous audio recordings you created.

Don’t get me wrong, I love GarageBand (and the whole iLife suite for that matter, I use it almost every day). It is very easy to create a ‘song’ using loops, like my First Song. Once I got comfortable with the GarageBand interface, it only took me a couple of hours to browse through the loops, pull some together so it sounded good, and export it to iTunes. The ‘song’ is listenable, but doesn’t reflect any real musical skill on my part. I didn’t apply any knowledge of time signatures, keys, tempo, or anything. I just dragged-and-dropped.

I guess my point is don’t get pulled into a false belief that a tool, any tool, can make you an expert at something or give you expert results. Remember, good tools are nice to have, but in the hands of a master even the simplest of tools can create wonders.

Benjamim Franklin at the Missouri History Museum

If you live in St. Louis and have not yet visited the exhibit Benjamin Franklin – In Search of a Better World at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park, I strongly encourage you to check it out before the exhibit closes on September 4. If you are planning to visit St. Louis between now and September 4, make sure you add it onto your itinerary.

If you visit the museum this Sunday (August 6), you can also sit in on a lecture by James Srodes (author of Franklin: The Essential Founding Father) and Peter Earnest (Executive Director of the International Spy Museum in D.C.) entitled Benjamin Franklin: Master of Intrgue. Srodes will also be available to sign his book.

Mastery through video games?

In his book Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson (who blogs at stevenberlinjohnson.com) puts forth the argument that Pop Culture – especially video games – contributes to the intelligence and mental agility of today’s youth.

In his fourth book, Everything Bad Is Good for You, iconoclastic science writer Steven Johnson … takes on one of the most widely held preconceptions of the postmodern world–the belief that video games, television shows, and other forms of popular entertainment are detrimental to Americans’ cognitive and moral development.

The heart of Johnson’s argument is something called the Sleeper Curve–a universe of popular entertainment that trends, intellectually speaking, ever upward, so that today’s pop-culture consumer has to do more “cognitive work”–making snap decisions and coming up with long-term strategies in role-playing video games, for example, or mastering new virtual environments on the Internet– than ever before.

Texas teenager Brad Coleman would make a very good “poster-child” for this argument: his childhood experience with NASCAR racing games led him to his first NASCAR race only two weeks out of high school.

Games offered the only exposure Coleman had to racing growing up in Houston. His father owned a marketing company, and his grandfather, Don, was a Hall of Fame high school basketball coach.

Sure, he impressed babysitters as a toddler racing a battery-powered car at the mall, and his parents thought he might be a racer when he fell asleep at the age of 4 in his battery-powered Jeep with his foot pressed on the accelerator — and kept turning circles in the driveway.

But talented enough to go from his first go-kart race to his Busch debut in the span of five years? Yes, and part of the credit goes to Coleman’s natural ability honed by years of pretending to be doing his homework when he actually was racing cars on his Sega Genesis, then PlayStation, his computer and then Xbox.

“It all started out on the NASCAR video games,” Coleman said. “When I was a little kid, I knew all the NASCAR tracks like the back of my hand. That helps me now.”

Obviously this path to mastery doesn’t work in all professions, or for all individuals. But it is an example of how the right tools, along with some innate talent and a drive for success, can help you learn. Even if that tool is ‘something bad for you.’

The tacit knowledge of (not in) organizations

When addressing the idea of tacit knowledge in respect to knowledge management, most descriptions focus on the tacit knowledge in organizations – that is, the tacit knowledge of the individual members of the organization – and how to capture and share that tacit knowledge. While I believe it is important to understand this tacit knowledge, I’ve always been more attracted to an understandingof the tacit knowledge of an organization, what it is the organization as a whole ‘knows.’

As with individuals, organizations operate based on the tacit knowledge they possess and their ability to act on that knowledge when needed. Unfortunately, up until now I’ve never really been able to point to an example of what I mean, but in a recent post on the Anecdote blog, Shawn Callahan posted an excerpt from a paper that provides what I think is the perfect example of what I mean. It is the story of how the US Federal Aviation Authority successfully landed all the planes in US airspace on September 11 (emphasis is mine):

On September 11th, as we all know, every plane was grounded. It took four hours for them to clear the skies, and during that time, they had to continue to assess whether terrorists were controlling any other plane. There was one incident in Alaska where the pilot was Korean and was giving the wrong code, so they thought he was in trouble, but he wasn’t. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) had to land 5,000 planes. Never been done before. No preparation, no simulations, no training. The person who was head of the FAA, was new to the job; it was his first day on the job, and I remember that he said, “In the interview for this job I asked, ”Will I have complete authority to make decisions?” and they said, “Yes.” He never thought that his very first day would be one where he was going to buy the farm on if it didn’t work. He gave the order. Several airlines, like Delta, had already asked all their planes to land. Many of the planes had to land at small airports. Small airports have air traffic controllers, rulebooks, and well-trained people, but there was no rulebook that covered this kind of circumstance, so they had to invent or disregard procedures. Everyone was being asked to be courageous by going against the book. And they all did it very well. It was a monumental task.

Later, they realized that the reason they succeeded was the strength of their relationships. They trusted each other as they were communicating across the country. There was a real esprit décor; they were smart. They could make new policies. They could make up rules that worked in the moment. So after Sept. 11, as any good organization would do, the FAA wanted to learn why this had worked so well. But of course, being a federal agency, they wanted to learn what worked so they could put it into a rulebook. After its research, the FAA did something extraordinarily brave. They decided not to write a rulebook about the incident; they understood that what had made it work was people’s intelligence, dedication, and relationships. That’s a lesson we all need to learn right now. The only way through an uncertain time is to have a certainty about your values, your purpose, and a certainty about each other. We call it trust, but it’s even more than that. It’s knowing, as my friend’s daughter who plays rugby says, “When you’re moving a ball down the field, you can’t see the people right behind you, but you may need to pass the ball to them, so they just keep signaling to you and they just keep staying with you, with you, with you.”

In the human brain it is the connections between neurons – and the ability of the brain to reorganize those connections to meet the situation – that makes up the intelligence and tacit knowledge of the individual. In organizations, it is the connections between people. And as the FAA learned, I’m not sure that is something that can just be written down (made explicit) and be expected to work again.