Five Fingers for my five toes

My new Five Fingers KSOAt the Strange Loop conference last month, I met a couple of guys wearing Vibram Five Fingers shoes. They both highly recommended them, so I figured I’d give them a try.  I went for the KSO model in black and orange (shown at right). I’ve been wearing my KSOs pretty much everywhere for the past week and can honestly say I love them.

Here’s how Vibram introduces Five Fingers:

Remember going barefoot as a child? It’s the way you first discovered and conquered your world—without the constraint of shoes. Or the sense of duty you acquired later on.

Now you can experience that same physical and visceral sensation in Vibram FiveFingers—the only footwear to offer the exhilarating joy of going barefoot with the protection and sure-footed grip of a Vibram® sole.

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call going barefoot an “exhilarating joy”, but I do have a tendency to go barefoot whenever I can, and the Five Fingers do give you the feeling of being barefoot. The bonus, of course, is the protection that the shoe provides. When wearing them you still feel all the bumps and rocks (and sticks or whatever), so you should watch where you’re walking, but you’re protected from all the sharp edges. You also don’t have to worry about your feet getting dirty or otherwise covered with gunk.

Some friends who are runners swear by Five Fingers as a great shoe to wear if you prefer to run barefoot. It has been a (way too) long time since I’ve done any running, and I’ve never run barefoot, so I can’t really comment to that. But I can say if you like to run barefoot, I can’t imagine these not being great.

A couple of things to keep in mind with Five Fingers:

  • If you don’t go barefoot much, take your time getting used to it. The instructions that come with the shows recommend starting with just an hour or so a day at first, and building up to longer.
  • Putting on Five Fingers is a bit more involved than slipping on a pair of shoes. You have to make sure that each toe goes in the right pocket, and there is definitely a trick to it. Just read the instructions, they will help.
  • It feels weird at first having your toes in pockets in the shoes.
  • These are very minimal shoes, and though they do provide protection from the physical elements they don’t help at all against the cold. You can get socks to wear with Five Fingers, but even those will only provide a little bit of warmth.

As I mentioned earlier, I really like these shoes. So much so that I’m planning to buy another pair as soon as I can find the style I’m looking for (the KSO Trek) in my size. If you enjoy walking barefoot, or think that the benefits Vibram describes might be something you’re interesting in, I highly recommend these unusual, but great, shoes.


Safe? No. Awesome? YES! My review of Strange Loop 2010

When I first learned about the Strange Loop developers conference here in St. Louis, I had a strong – you might say strange – urge to attend. Strange because I am not a software developer; it’s been a long time since I’ve done any serious coding. What caught my eye was how conference organizer Alex Miller (@puredanger) tied the ideas of one of my favorite books of recent years, Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop, to The Loop here in St. Louis and the idea of building an identity for St. Louis based developers.

More importantly, at least for me, it was not a conference focused on any one topic or language, but was like a survey course of the latest and greatest in many areas of development theory and practice. Here’s a quick summary of some of the sessions I attended at Strange Loop 2010:

Semantic Web

The first non-keynote talk I attended, Brian Sletten’s (@bsletten) talk Semantic Web: Hot or Not? looked at big-S Semantic Web, providing a bit of history about how it has failed to catch on in the past and why he thinks that its time has come. In case you are wondering, Brian voted for “hot”.

Towards the end of the second day, Scott Davis (@scottdavis99) presented Hidden Web Services: Microformats and the Semantic Web, a look at what I would call small-s semantic web. Using some (not always cooperative) live examples along with his presentation slides, Scott showed RDFa and microformats in action.

Of all the talks, these two provided me the most practical information that I can make use of. As soon as I finish this review (and catch up on a couple of other things I need to blog), I will be diving into RDFa and microformats and seeing how I can put them to use on this blog and a couple of other sites with which I’m involved.

Complexity Theory

Readers of this blog know that complexity is an idea that is never very far back in my thoughts, so I obviously made the time to attend Tim Berglund’s (@tlberglund) talk Complexity Theory and Software Development. He covered a lot of ground that I’m familiar with, but also gave me many new things to think about. And a couple of new ways to look at things.

Not taking anything away from any of the other presenters, Tim was one of the best presenters I had the pleasure of seeing. He was in one of the “small” rooms, but the quality of both the content and the presentation would have made this talk well suited to the main room at the Pageant.

NoSQL

When I saw the NoSQL track on the Strange Loop schedule, I assumed that this was a specific database implementation, along the lines of mySQL. (I told you it’s been a while….). Over the course of the two days, I came to understand the concepts of NoSQL and how these concepts can be, and are, being used.

Eben Hewitt’s (@ebenhewitt) talk Adopting Apache Cassandra provided me with a nice theoretical understanding that would serve me well through later talks, and Kevin Weil’s (@kevinweil) provided some lessons in implementation in his talk NoSQL at Twitter. The engineer in me really enjoyed Kevin’s frank discussion of the challenges and solutions – some successful and some not – as Twitter addressed the challenges presented by huge data sets.

Android

Next to the semantic web discussions, Ted Neward’s (@tedneward) talk Busy Java Developer’s Guide to Android: Basics provided me the most practical value. My Droid gives me a reason – and opportunity – to use Android as a platform to get back into some development (however small scale it may be), and this talk gave me enough to get started. A quick overview of the SDK, some talk about the NDK, and then some runthroughs of ideas were great. Ted also had a wealth of knowledge which he freely shared during the extended Q&A that the session eventually turned into.

It’s tough to say which talk was my favorite, but if you pushed me to choose I would have to go with Android Squared from Bob Lee (@crazybob) and Eric Burke (@burke_eric) from Square.  The talk focused on the engineering and software challenges related to using the Square in the mic port of an Android phone, including some detailed waveform and signal analysis and some tricks to deal with the wide variety of Android implementations out there. (It didn’t hurt that they handed out some hardware at the end of their talk.)

Bob and Eric took turns talking about specific aspects of the challenges and the solutions. Like Kevin Weil, they held no punches in terms of talking about successes and failures along the way. They not only showed the final product, but provided some great insights into the process of figuring things out.

There are a couple of talks I attended but haven’t mentioned, and then their are the keynotes and the panel discussions that were worth the price of admission (a low $190) all on their own. I’ll try to get back to those, and maybe even the above talks, in more detail over the coming weeks.

Summary (of my already too long summary)

At the top of Alex Miller’s favorites list on Twitter is this tweet from Jeff Atwood (@codinghorror):

“it’s better to be safe than sorry” is such crap. You know what’s better than being safe? Being AWESOME.

Alex most definitely didn’t take a “safe” path when he put together Strange Loop. The venue was spread across three venues, including a club typically used for concerts, the hotel next door, and a couple of rooms from the Regional Arts Commission across the street. Some of the rooms got overcrowded, and there was a general dissatisfaction with the wi-fi availability. And then there is the cross-discipline (cross-language?) nature of the conference, which may not have provided the depth that some wanted but made up for it with breadth.

I can’t speak for Alex and whether or not he is sorry about any of it, but I can say that he – and his cadre of assistants and volunteers – definitely hit awesome.

I’m already looking forward to next year.

Most managers don’t want creative employees

A couple of summers ago I read Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson. The book lives up to its title and one that I heartily recommend. It contains a wealth of ideas and views on management that you don’t often come across.

For example, this on the management of creativity:

Real creativity, the kind that is responsible for breakthrough changes in our society, always violates the rules. That is why it is so unmanageable and that is why, in most organizations, when we say we desire creativity we really mean manageable creativity. We don’t mean raw, dramatic, radical creativity that requires us to change.

As much as managers and organizations say they want to be innovative and groundbreaking, they usually don’t mean they want each of their individual employees to be innovative and groundbreaking. They want the rules to be followed, because that’s how things are supposed to work. They don’t believe that rules are meant to be broken.

The real message, though, is this: break the rules and be successful and we’ll back you all the way, but break the rules and fail and you are on your own.

This is something that Seth Godin talks about quite a bit. Don’t expect any cover from your boss when you try something new, he tells us, because that’s not your boss’s job. If your creativity, your art, is important to you, the best thing you can do is to simply do it. Or, as he says in Linchpin:

The reason you might choose to embrace the artist within you now is that this is the path to (cue the ironic music) security. When it is time for layoffs, the safest job belongs to the artist, the linchpin, the one who can’t be easily outsourced or replaced.

Update: This post is an updated version of something I first wrote in June 2008. I was inspired to update it by a common search term in my referral logs (rules are meant to be broken), my earlier post (Some) Rules are meant to be broken, and the recent series of Hey Leaders, Wake Up! posts at hackingwork.com.

Chance favors the connected mind (Where Good Ideas Come From)

I’ve read the reviews, I’ve seen the video (also embedded below), and I’ve listened in on the webinar. And now that the UPS guy has made his afternoon delivery, I can finally read Steven Johnson‘s (@stevenbjohnson) latest book Where Good Ideas Come From – The Natural History of Innovation. (Though it is going to have to wait a day or two until I finish The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing.)

Having read many of Johnson’s previous books, I know that I like his writing style and approach and fully expect to enjoy reading this book. More than anything, though, I’m looking forward to his ideas on ideas, especially the idea that chance favors the connected mind. If this isn’t enough to convince you that you should probably go out and get the book, please read on.

A couple of tidbits from reviews:

  • In “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation,” Steven Johnson, an author and Internet entrepreneur, draws on natural science, intellectual history and 21st-century technology to identify the environments that are conductive to innovation. Johnson doesn’t define “good ideas” — or indicate whether their pathways to implementation differ from those of “bad ideas.”  – The Oregonian
  • Where do good ideas come from? That is the question posed by Steven Johnson, a writer known for the agility with which he makes interdisciplinary analogies, in his latest book. His “natural history of innovation” provides a taxonomy of seven ways in which new ideas can sprout from old ones. But this is no management text: for each of his seven patterns of innovation, Mr Johnson provides wide-ranging examples from technology, the natural world and culture. – The Economist

Luis Suarez (@elsua) has some excellent thoughts on Johnson’s TED talk on the subject, along with this ringing endorsement:

Do you happen to have about 18 minutes of your precious busy time … to spare to go ahead and watch one of those TED Talks that will surely keep you thinking for a while on what true innovation is all about? You do? Then you have got to go and watch Steven Johnson‘s Talk on Where Good Ideas Come From. It’s worth the 18 minutes and so much more!

Johnson is currently touring for the book, and will be in St. Louis on 14 October. (I must now make a choice: stick around at the Strange Loop Conference for theStrange Passions party or duck out to see Johnson. Decisions, decisions.)

Good ideas from Steven Johnson

As a thank you for pre-ordering Steven Johnson‘s new book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, I was invited to listen in on a special webinar where he spoke about the book and some of its ideas. Here are my (raw) notes from the webinar. Lots of good nuggets to be mined, lots of things to think and talk about.

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Started off talking about how his book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software came about. He was working on a book about brains, then received as birthday gift a book of old maps. He noticed that the map of Hamburg looks like cutaway of the human brain. What if it’s not a book about cities or brains, but a book about cities AND brains? The hunch was there, but he had no idea what to make of it. Vague sense that there was something promising. Kept the hunch alive, explored the connections between the two. Several drafts where the connections weren’t well formed, he finally came up with it after quite a bit of research.

The key thing is that he was able to keep the hunch alive and work through it.

We all have hunches like that, we think it might be promising but we don’t know what to do with it. We need a way in our organizations for these hunches to be kept alive and cultivated.

For the past six years he has kept a “sparks file”. A single Word document (now Google Doc, so he can access from anywhere), he puts every half-baked (or less) idea he has about a book or story in it. No organization, no sorting at all. If you spend too much time putting it in order – folders, etc – you will miss the connections. Reread it every couple of months. [A lot like how I use my own notebooks, which reminds me it is time to go through them again.] The document is 6 years old, some ideas have grown into books, some are not so interesting.

When you reread the document you come across a snippet that you had forgotten about, or that didn’t make sense at the time, that now makes some sense. Allows you to network with your past ideas.

Do it with other people’s ideas, too. Talked about the idea of the Commonplace Book from the Enlightenment. People would copy bits and pieces from influential works that they’ve read. “Commonplacing”. Same function as your own sparks file, except it has other people’s ideas and writing in it.

It is not enough to just take notes, you have to revisit them. Getting easier now with technology – Kindle, blogs, social bookmarks. Revisiting is important, so you can renew old thoughts and find new connections.

DevonThink is the tool that he uses. I remember seeing him talking about this many years ago when I first read one of his books. Allows you to dump just about anything into it as an open database. Mac only still? [Yes] Looks at a snippet of text and finds other snippets that are related. It’s smart, but not too smart. It is a bit fuzzy, and it is this noise that really helps make connections. “My outboard memory of all the things I’ve read.” Sometimes, types in something that he wrote to see what it returns.

Who had the idea, me or the software? A little bit of both. It took him to curate the tidbits, the software to make the connections, and him to put together the final thought.

Bill Gates takes a “reading vacation” to read. Ray Ozzie does the same thing. A very interesting strategy; usually when we read it is at night, when we are tired and have 20-30 minutes before we go to bed. Takes a couple of weeks to read, you lose the possible connections between the books you read.

[This is why 52 in 52 is so important, read in rapid succession. This explains why ideas come so fast and furious when I am reading a lot.]

Could be a great value to companies to give their employees a week of reading vacation every year. Need to make sure that the suggested reading list has some diversity, and is not just focused in one new area.

Diversity of ideas is key to innovation. An idea from one area provides the insight that creates innovation in another. In nature this is called exaptation.

A look at the extended social networks of innovative people. Unusually innovative people have very diverse weak-tie networks; not just a lot of weak-ties, but very diverse weak-ties. An exceptionally powerful idea and tool.

Have to be open and fluent in those different fields, catholic in your tastes. [I think this is the first time I have ever heard someone use “catholic” in this generic, non-church sense.]

Discussed the importance of coffee shops as multi-disciplinary hubs in the 18th century, which he talked about in The Invention of Air. Social network software is helping serve this function. He uses Twitter as a way to get recommended reading items, his daily digest of things to read. Set up your social network life to follow a diverse group of people, you can get a very interesting reading list curated for you every morning. A serendipity engine.

Unusually innovative people have a lot of hobbies, always working on a bunch of different things. Used Darwin as an example; his side projects allowed him to create an “internal coffee house”.

Where Good Ideas Come From is intended to provide an interdisciplinary look at things.

Questions from the audience:

Public education – positive, negative, neutral? Historically, it has not been an environment particularly open to innovation. But I think we are at an inflection point where we can rething how things should work. A lot of innovation happening in that area right now. Let’s not break it into different subjects, but use topics to include all of the subjects. Games and simulations, as he mentioned in Everything Bad is Good for You, also have a lot of promise.

How will innovation change because of the internet, and being so spread out? The web is a huge innovation hub. Exploring the idea of a social commonplace book. [I have to wonder how this is different from social bookmarking?]

How do small organizations cultivate hunch-making? By definition, a startup is kind of experimental anyway, so you don’t really have to cultivate the hunches. In some ways, it’s 100% hunch. Along these lines, he mentioned the growing idea of coworking:

One of the most interesting things that has developed recently is coworking spaces. Small startups, freelancers, people between jobs, or people that just don’t want to go into the main office. It gives you infrastructure, gives you other people. A “liquid network” that I talk about in the book. Interesting related ideas but not too much structure. For a young business to share a physical space with another young business, that’s a great opportunity.

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Retaining knowledge in organizations – a contrary view

Yesterday’s #kmers chat focused on the topic Retaining the Knowledge of People Leaving your Organization.  Quite a bit of discussion around the topic, including questions about whether you should try to capture knowledge from those leaving, how you should do it, etc. etc.  Personally, I agree with V Mary Abraham (@vmaryabraham) when she says:

Ideally, move to system of #observable work. Then people disclose info & connections as they work & before they leave.

That way, the knowledge that is shared is in the context of a current action and not just information sitting in a repository somewhere.

This is a question that I – and many others – have wrestled with for many years now. Here is something I originally posted in Sep 2004 on the question. This is an unedited copy of that original post; I may come back later and give it a fresh coat.

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For many years now I’ve read about and been involved in discussions about the impending retirement of baby boomers, the effect this will have on institutional memory, and what can be done about it. Most of my interest in this at the time concerned the impact on the federal government workforce, which will be very hard hit since the retirement age is a bit lower than the populace in general.

Though I’ve not yet read it, the book Lost Knowledge by Dave DeLong addresses this problem in great detail (more on the book can be found here, here, and here). A snippet from the book’s website:

Dr. David DeLong, a research fellow at MIT’s AgeLab, has just created the first comprehensive framework to help leaders retain critical organizational knowledge despite an aging workforce and increased turnover among mid-career employees.

Like most discussions of the topic I’ve been involved in, the book seems to focus on the negative aspects of people leaving, and taking their knowledge with them. However, I have been reading James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and think that we may be missing out on an opportunity to actively reinvent the corporate knowledge as we try, probably in vain, to keep the old knowledge around.

Granted, there is some information and there are many processes that must be recorded and retained. This the basic infrastructure of how an organization functions. But if you simply take the knowledge of people who are leaving and transfer that to the people that are replacing them, you are effectively eliminating the value of the “new blood” coming into the organization. Or, in the words of Surowiecki, you are maintaining homogeneity at the expense of diversity.

Organizational memory, like human memory, can be a stubborn thing to change and often results in the this is how we’ve always done it syndrome. An excellent description of memory formation can be found in Tony Buzan’s The Mind Map Book (sorry for the lengthy quote, but it bears repeating in whole):

Every time you have a thought, the biochemical/electromagnetic resistance along the pathway carrying that thought is reduced. It is like trying to clear a path through a forest. The first time is a struggle because you have to fight your way through the undergrowth. The second time you travel that way will be easier because of the clearing you did on your first journey. The more times you travel that path, the less resistance ther will be, until, after many repetitions, you have a wide, smooth track which requires little or no clearing. A similar function occurs in your brain: the more you repeat patterns or maps of thought, the less resistance there is to them. Therefore, and of greater significance, repetition in itself increases the probability of repetition (original emphasis). In other words, the more times a ‘mental event’ happens, the more likely it is to happen again.

When you are trying to learn something, this is obviously a good thing. However, the very nature of this learning process makes it more difficult to learn something new, especially if it is very different (“off the beaten path”). By pointing new people down the paths of the people that are retiring, you are ensuring that the well known paths will continue to thrive and that it will be harder to create new paths through the forest.

That’s fine if your goal is to continue on the path you are on, but it brings to mind an old proverb I saw somewhere: If you don’t change the path you are on, you’ll end up where it takes you.

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The lizard brain of Leonardo da Vinci

On my way back to the hotel this evening, I stopped by the El Paso History Museum to visit “The Da Vinci Experience”, an exhibit of machines and models of quite a few of da Vinci’s many inventions and ideas. Over the years I’ve read many books about da Vinci, explored his notebooks online, and even helped my son when he did a project for his world history class.

But to see his ideas physically incarnated was something else altogether.

All of the models were implemented primarily in wood, some set up as static displays (please don’t touch) and some as hands on to play with. If you’ve taken physics classes, or if you are someone who likes to tinker, many of the ideas related to pulleys, gears, and other mechanical gadgets will seem like old hat.

Until, that is, you take a moment to consider that no one taught these things to Leonardo. He had to create the knowledge that, even today, many people find hard to understand. Knowledge that continues – 500 years later – to make our lives better.

How did he do it? Was he smarter than the rest of us, blessed with an inate intelligence that we can only dream of. I don’t think so. Did he have better opportunities than the rest of us? The historical record shows that he started worse off than many and made his own opportunities throughout his life.

One thing is certain, da Vinci made very good use of his time. He may not have been very efficient, and he had a tendency to leave things unfinished. But he had ideas, a lot of ideas, both good and bad. And he wasn’t afraid to pursue them. He didn’t cave in to what Seth Godin calls the resistance, the lizard brain that tries to save us from ourselves.

And I think that is the real genius of Leonardo da Vinci: observe the world and follow your ideas where ever they take you, and don’t let anyone – especially you – convince you otherwise.