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)

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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Do they need to learn the old way, or do we need to adapt to the new?

During my conversations with colleagues about a world without e-mail, the Beloit College Mindset List for the Class of 2014 came up. One of the points from the list that was brought to my attention was that this generation

“will need to acquire the patience of scholarship. They will discover how to research information in books and journals and not just on-line.”

This is obviously written by someone coming from the perspective that these new students need to learn the old ways of doing things, that the old ways are inherently better because they are, well, old. (Maybe “existing” or “proven” would be more palatable, take your pick.) But I would be willing to bet that this generation, or one not too distant, will be the one to make “patience of scholarship” a thing of the past and the distinction between “books and journals” and “online” disappear.

Schools, like business, need to accept that the evolution of technology, and the generations that grow up with that technology, will result in significant changes and do what they can to ride the wave of those changes, instead of thinking that they need to do what they can to mitigate the effects of the technology so they can continue to do things the way they’ve always done them.

If the rising generation is not using e-mail, because it is too slow, etc, do we really want to go out of our way to make them use it and, in the process, slow them down?

The biggest security threat in the digital age is…

… not Microsoft, not social media tools, but: PEOPLE.

A recent blog post by Dave Snowden and some commentary by Luis Suarez have reminded me of something Bruce Schneier said a while back (in 2004, actually):

Since the beginning of time, people have always been the biggest security threat. That hasn’t changed because of computers. People are why firewalls are invariably misconfigured. They’re why social engineering works. They’re why good security products are rarely deployed properly. Securing the computer and network is hard, but it’s much easier than securing the person sitting on the chair in front of the monitor. (emphasis is mine)

In his commentary, Luis makes an interesting point that social networking – not the tools, but the activity – may be in part responsible for these types of lapses in security and uses it as a teaching point.

And, for once, social networking didn’t have anything to do with it. Oh, did it? Well, perhaps it has got plenty to do with it!; after all, don’t social software tools encourage us all to listen to what’s happening out there? Maybe they will also help us understand how we can mitigate those perceived risks by having each and everyone of us walking the talk, i.e. behaving responsively with the information and knowledge that we are exposed to, and share across accordingly, day in day out, for that matter… You wouldn’t want a total stranger to know, coming out right out of your mouth!, your full credit card number, your date of birth and any other kind of identification material, right? (emphasis his)

In the military this is called OPSEC, or Operational Security, and it is drilled into soldiers’ heads almost daily. It is, in other words, a way of life.

On the other hand, there is a fine line between appropriate security and being paranoid. With an understanding of what you really need to protect, and what is not so vital, and a bit of thought, you should be able to find that line.

And it is a line that you need to find.

Don’t judge a new book by an old cover

Is Google making us stupid, as Nicholas Carr and others have told us? I don’t think so. Instead, it is making us differently intelligent. Carr, et al are simply judging this difference, the new type of intelligence, against the old standards.

In his article The War On Flow, 2009: Why Studies About Multitasking Are Missing The Point, Steven Boyd makes the point much more eloquently:

If you use industrial era yardsticks based on personal productivity to try to figure out what is going on in our heads, here, in the web of flow, you will simply think we are defective. We’ll have to learn how to measure the larger scope — the first and second closure of our networks — and distill from our media-based interactions how we influence and support each other. Get away from counting the calories, and get into how it all tastes.

I found Boyd’s article through Jim McGee’s article Asking more relevant questions about focus and multitasking, in which Jim adds his own take on the question of multitasking:

The question is not about whether multitasking is a better way to do old forms of work; it is about what skills and techniques do we need to develop to deal with the forms of work that are now emerging. … One of the useful things to be done is to spend a more time watching the juggling (to borrow Stowe Boyd’s image) and appreciating it on its own terms instead of criticizing it for what it isn’t.

I have to admit I’m a bit old-school, and still have some work to do on my “juggling”. In some ways, I  miss the old days of a “simple catch”. At the same time, I love the challenge that juggling presents and am working my way up to having ever more balls in the air. 

Who knows, one day I may graduate to flaming torches or even chainsaws.

(For a great intro to juggling and how you can apply it to work and life, check out Michael Gelb’s More Balls Than Hands: Juggling Your Way to Success by Learning to Love Your Mistakes.)

More books, books, and more books

Back in November ’07 I signed up for Shelfari, the self-described “premier social network for people who love books.”  Up till that point I had been keeping a book list in my handy-dandy notebook (I’m still a bit low-tech in some areas).  This was about the time I was jumping into the world of social media beyond the blog, so it seemed a reasonable thing to transfer my book list onto Shelfari.  I spent a bit of time getting used to the interface, and then started plugging in my books.  I also used Shelfari to track my progress in the 50-book challenge for last year.  But, I have to admit, I didn’t really care for the way the site worked so I didn’t use it much.

A couple of weeks ago, through a tweet from @randyholloway, I learned of GoodReads, another social network built around books.  (Despite all the predictions to the contrary, books are obviously alive and well!) My first impression of GoodReads was that I liked it, so I decided to give it a try.

I can’t say exactly what it is that I like about GoodReads more than Shelfari.  I do like the ability to update my status in a book, including adding comments along the way.  I also like that you can use formatting and other html in the body of reviews and other text fields; the lack of this always frustrated me in Shelfari.

I also like the layout and display a bit better; I understand the shelf motif that Shelfari uses, I just don’t think it really translates that well to the web.  (Cool to look at once, but not really usable over time imho.)  Having RSS feeds for the different “shelves” is also nice, gives me a simple way to add my list of reading, to-read, and read to this blog (check the right column) or any other sight.

As for the social networking aspect of GoodReads, I haven’t really had a chance to take advantage of them yet.  In this regard I think it may be about the same as Shelfari, with the ability to find others who are reading the same or similar books and to find other books that I may enjoy.

Of course, there was no way I was going to go back in and add 200+ books into yet another site.  I’ll keep my Shelfari shelves intact as an archive of my pre-2009 reading, and my GoodReads shelves will serve as a record of my 2009 and beyond reading.

Getting the most from LinkedIn

As I’ve started exploring social media a bit more seriously recently, I’ve taken a fresh look at LinkedIn.  Since I first signed up, more and more people I know have started using LinkedIn as well – or at least they’ve signed up.  I’ve also reconnected with a few folks from way back, so that’s been nice.  But I’m still trying to figure out exactly how to make it work for me.

Tony Karrer has given the question quite a bit of thought and has some good suggestions in his post LinkedIn Connection Approach Rethought.  In this post, he looks at his use of LinkedIn using Christian Mayaud’s ideas on Right Sizing your PANs, FANs, and CANs. *  Interestingly, what Tony found is that the LinkedIn recommended approach of only connecting with FANs and CANs really limits the value of LinkedIn. The true value of LinkedIn, at least for Tony, is in building his PANs.

As I described to Lilia in an interview with her last summer, I got to know quite a few people in the KM field through blogging.  However, with few exceptions I didn’t feel that I knew them well enough to request a connection in LinkedIn.  Reading the summary of my interview and Lilia’s collected thoughts on KM blogs and networking in general have “loosened” me up a bit, so that I am connecting with more “casual acquaintances” than before.  (In fact, I finally connected with Lilia just this week!)

Check out this Common Craft video for an example of a practical use of LinkedIn; thanks to Matt Homann for the link to the video.