The blog of Samuel Pepys

Much of what we know about the events of history comes from the personal writings – journals, diaries, letters – of the people that lived those events. Reading these diaries is simple enough – assuming they are in a language you can read – but understanding them in their original context can be a bit daunting. That’s why we have historians to help us make sense.

An excellent example comes in the form of the diaries of Samuel Pepys. Written over nearly 10 years beginning on the first day of 1660, Pepys’ diaries give an incredible insight into life and politics in London during this exciting period in history. If, that is, you understand what it is he is talking about.

Enter Phil Gyford and The Diary of Samuel Pepys. In addition to turning the diary into a blog (the first entry was published on 1 Jan 2003), Phil has provided extensive contextual detail about people, places, and events to help readers better understand the significance of individual entries and – perhaps more importantly – be able to follow the story line.

If you are even remotely interested in what was going on in London in the 1660’s, this is one site you don’t want to miss.

It’s hard not to wonder how these diaries might have been different had they been written as a blog, or if he had Twitter to post his thoughts. (I’ve asked this question before, about Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci). More interestingly, would we think about our history differently if we were reading of it in blogs and tweets instead of personal – and often private – journals and diaries?

Much of what future historians will know of us will come from our online writings. Will they get an accurate picture of our lives? Are we, and future generations, losing something by having so much out there for everyone to see? Or will future generations have a better understanding of why the world is as it is because of all this openness and discussion?

(photo: painting of Samuel Pepys by John Hayls, 1666)

Social savvy, yes – tech savvy, not so much

It is easy to look at ‘the younger generation’ and think, “Wow, these kids really know computers and networking.” I used to think along the same lines. I mean, how could they use such cool tools and not want to know how they work, not take the time to figure out what makes them tick.

But when you talk to these kids, you quickly realize that most of them don’t have a clue about how it all works. I had this epiphany a few years ago when I was talking to a couple of teenagers about some piece of tech, probably video game tech, and realized that if something went wrong they would be out of luck.

Disc drive not working? No sound? Internet connection is down? Bummer, dude.

Bruce Schneier puts it very well in a recent discussion about privacy and the individual (which I found thanks to @jmcgee at McGee’s Musings):

The younger generation is very fluent about how to use the internet, but completely clueless about how it works technically. Socially very savvy, technically very unsavvy.

Of course, this isn’t really anything new and I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised. Just looking back to my own teen years gives me all the insight I really need. Back then the main way to communicate was the telephone. I can count on one hand the other kids my age that knew – or cared – how the telephones worked; you should have seen the looks on their face when I tried to engage them in discussions about DTMF replacing pulse-dialing.

The reason the iPhone is so popular, and services like Facebook, Twitter, etc have so many users is because you don’t really have to understand how they work in order to use them. And that was fine when all you had was the telephone. But, as Schneier points out, today’s online social exchanges are different. All of our interactions on these digital services create an incredible amount of data; data about us, about our interests, and about our connections.

Understanding how the systems that own – and yes, they do own – this data about you work is critical. And not just for the kids, either.

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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William Gibson on…

This past weekend I had the pleasure of meeting author William Gibson when he came through St. Louis promoting his latest book, Zero History. He started off  by reading a bit from the book and then opened it up for questions from the standing room only crowd.

Here are some notes from the conversations that ensued:


When asked if he saw the world as bleak as the dystopias he depicts in his books, Gibson made the comment to the effect, “Dystopia is in the eye of the beholder”. From the perspective of the affluent, who have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo, his worlds may be dystopic, but there are plenty of people in the world who would see those worlds as a big step up.

…brands and marketing in his writing

Gibson references many real brands as part of his stories, and when asked said that you can’t really write a book about current times, especially in a big city like London, without branding and marketing being brightly on display. That is the world we live in, to not include it would make the whole story feel a bit false. This ties into his overall philosophy of naturalism in his writing.

…his career

When asked if his career turned out how expected, or hoped, it would, Gibson glibly commented that he never thought he’d have a writing career at all. His first novel, the best-selling Neuromancer, was written on commission and he fully expected that the first small printing would also be the last. All in all, I think he’s very happy with how it turned out.


Asked about whether his writing reflects his own ideas that he is trying to spread, Gibson quickly said no. Didactism is a legitimate approach to writing, but he’s found that if you do that it is at the expense of the story and the characters. On the subject of characters and character development, he went on to say that if you – as an author – know what your characters are going to do before they do it, then you are also shortchanging the story. “I never know what my characters are going to do, and sometimes they do things that I wish they hadn’t.”

…freelancers vs. salaried workers

Gibson noted that his stories tend to have freelancers as the good guys and “salaried workers” as the bad guys, and said that this wasn’t really intentional (see comments on didactism above). He did note that not everyone that “works for the man” is bad, and in fact one of the key good guys of the current book is one of those salaried workers.


When I asked him how he came up with his own Twitter handle, Gibson explained that a friend had told him about it so he figured he’d check it out, fully expecting to think it stupid and not worth keeping up with. When prompted for a user name, he looked up on his shelf and saw a book about The Great Dismal Swamp; hence, @GreatDismal. After about 5 minutes with Twitter, he found that he loved it. For the first time, he said, authors could get the same direct feedback – good and bad – from their fans that those in sports, film, etc did.

Gibson also made some comments about cultural history and cultural memory, noting that today’s generation of young adults have no idea what it was like to live in constant  fear of nuclear annihilation.  Whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen. I  have a few other notes, but unfortunately even I am unable to read the scribble that I hurriedly wrote down.

(Just one more reason, as if I need one, that I want an iPad.)

A special thanks to Left Bank Books and the Schlafly Branch of St. Louis Public library for hosting this stop on Gibson’s book tour, and to Dennis Kennedy for making me aware of it. And, of course, to William Gibson for coming to town.

An abundance of opportunity (some initial thoughts on “Cognitive Surplus”)

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected AgeCognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In his new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Clay Shirky covers some of the same ground as several other authors I’ve read this year. But even though some of the starting material may be the same – such as the Israeli day care story – Shirky tells a very different story, with a very different moral and outcome than those other books. (In case you’re wondering, the two that come immediately to mind are Dan Pink’s Drive and Seth Godin’s Linchpin.)

The upshot of the book is that in the last half of twentieth century people found themselves, in general, with a higher level of education and a larger amount of free time than at most any other time in history, while at the same time “accidents” of technology and policy created an environment of increased social isolation (think interstates, suburbs, and TV). On top of this physical isolation, there was technological isolation; the means simply did not exist for individuals to easily share their knowledge or their interests, and the ability to organize large groups around an interest was reserved for the well financed. This was the purview of the “professionals”.

As a result, we – especially in the US – became a nation of consumers. Even as the technology has developed over the past decade or so to allow for broad sharing and easy organizing, Shirky says, we are only now coming to understand the implications and actually be ready to take advantage of the opportunities this technology presents. We are only now coming to appreciate what the “amateurs” can bring.

And this, in the end, is the point of the book: We have an abundance of opportunities available to us as a result of the technologies of social media (and all that entails), and it is our responsibility to take advantage of those opportunities.

A lot of thoughts rattling around my brain about this great book, more to come. In the mean time, check out Shirky talking about his ideas in this TEDx talk.

Explaining Twitter

There are many ways to use Twitter, and at least as many ways to (try to) explain Twitter to people who haven’t yet given it a try. The one I’m most often faced with is from an “average Joe / Jane” that isn’t interested in knowing what someone is having for lunch or that they are changing a really nasty diaper. This is what I’ve come up with for them:

Twitter is a way to meet people. That’s it. What you do with it beyond that is entirely up to you.

Of course, this simple answer rarely convinces anyone, so I continue with something like this.

Think about the last time you went to a party, or out to a club. Chances are you went with a friend, or a group of friends, and didn’t know everyone there. But by the end of the night, you knew more people than before and maybe even made a connection on a personal or professional level with someone. Twitter is exactly the same, only different.

If you follow me on Twitter, you will get to see the conversations I’m involved in, and you can join in whenever you want. If you decide that the other person in the conversation is interesting enough to talk to without me around, you can follow them. You will then see who they talk to and what they talk about, and I guarantee that you will find someone that shares your deep interest in something.

The more conversations you get involved in, and the more you follow, the more you will see the different ways that you can use Twitter for whatever you want to use it for.

This is pretty much how my own use of Twitter has evolved. There are a gazillion ways to use it, and there are some uses that hold no interest for me. (I also don’t care to hear about that nasty diaper on Twitter – that’s what Facebook is for.) But I’ve found ways to use it that work for me, so can you.

You just have to start.

Friends loosely

What is a friend?

Seems a simple enough question, but in this age of FaceBook, Twitter, and all the rest, the word itself is getting a lot of use. Use that some people say is not appropriate.

I got started thinking down this line a couple of weeks ago when I heard a reporter on NPR refer to a group of people as “friends, loosely“. I forget the exact context, but basically it was a face-to-face gathering of people from around the country who only “knew” (the reporter’s quotes, not mine) each other online. The implication, and obvious bias, from the reporter was that these people weren’t really friends.

I mean, think about it. How could they possibly be friends if they had never actually met, in person?

Never mind that these people shared a common passion, that they knew as much about each other as they did any other “real” friend, that they communicated with each other on an almost constant basis. They congratulate each other on anniversaries and birthdays, weddings and the birth of children and grandchildren. And when someone in the group needs help, or just someone to talk to, the rest of the group is there.

More recently I’ve heard the terms e-friend and i-friend. Do we really need those distinctions? Maybe they are useful, like college-friend or childhood-friend, to provide a little bit of context. In the end, though, I don’t think it matters where you met, or how you got to know each other.

A friend is a friend.