All this machinery making modern music

To make music these days, musicians need to know just a bit more than how to play their instrument. A guitar player, for example, needs to be able to play the guitar (a given), but also must have an understanding of how the guitar is built, what accessories provide what features, how to mic the amps. Likewise a drummer, bass player, or other band member. Then comes the process of recording music to produce a song and, hopefully, all the work that goes into putting on a live performance. There are a seemingly endless supply of options available to these musicians that must be overwhelming at times.

Kind of like the seemingly endless onslaught of new collaboration tools and ways to communicate with others.

A little over 5 years ago, I wrote the following:

I’ve been messing around with blogs (with varying success) for over 5 years now, have set up and contributed to my fair share of other online sources like wikis and as a commenter to other blogs. But I’ve only recently really understood the value and, yes, appeal of text messaging and the ability to send photos and videos from anywhere on my phone. And, though I’ve recently signed up and started experimenting with Facebook, I’m still not quite sure exactly what to do with it. And don’t get me started with things like Twitter – as much as friends and others praise it, I just don’t get it.

Of course, it has only gotten worse (better?) since then.

List of feed options for the Lifestream plugin
All this, plus a way to add any that aren’t already included

I have spent the better part of the past year or so exploring and trying out new tools, seeing where they add value or don’t. I still don’t use Facebook much, but have found my groove with Twitter. I see the value and potential of Google+ but just can’t quite get into it. On the other hand, I have come to love and rely on Jive in our “behind the firewall” social/business network. I’ve signed up for many of the niche services that have come out: I really like InstagramUntappd is a cool idea, and I don’t get Pinterest (at all). A quick look at the feed selection list for the Lifestream plugin for WordPress gives an idea of what’s out there. I have no idea what most of them are, and this isn’t even all of them! (Lifestream provides a way for you to add “generic” feeds for all those that they’ve missed.)

Speaking of WordPress… Although I haven’t been blogging publicly for a while (16 months or so, yikes!), spending a lot of time writing and making things happen behind the firewall, I have kept up with the evolution of WordPress and the great tools available in the system, not to mention the evolution of its positioning in the market from “just another … blog” to “just another … site”. I’ve read a couple of good WordPress books through my Safari Books Online subscription, and played around a bit under the hood.

Wordcamp St. Louis 2012

And in a couple of weeks I’m attending WordCamp St. Louis 2012 to learn and share even more.

I could say that all this goodness was part of why it has taken me so long to actually get back up and running. (I told @tomcatalini back in April that I was “very close” to a return to blogging, not sure 4 months counts as “very close”.) And though it sounds like an excuse it is, at least partly, true. Part of my absence has been directly related to my trying to figure out what direction I wanted this blog to take, to build on my previous blogs or to try something new. But part has been trying to understand what is possible with regards to how I do it.

A perfect example of this interplay was my discovery of different post formats, along with the Showcase page template in the Twenty Eleven theme, and how I could use it to capture and present both my own extended thoughts on things (an ounce of perception) and a log of my more random thoughts and observations (a pound of obscure).

I don’t need to worry about all those sites and services in the list above that I don’t know about, or know how to use, nor do I need to worry about all the bells and whistles in WordPress. Perhaps they will be of value to me some day, and if so I expect that I will find them if and when I need them. What I care about is what I can do with them. 

Like the musicians I mentioned earlier, my purpose is not to “play an instrument” or to set up a bunch of gear. My purpose is to make music, and all this machinery is just a way to do that.

Now, let’s see what kind of music I can make….

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.

Mobile devices are not the enemy of learning

Towards the back of his book Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning, published in 2005, author Marc Prensky discusses the potential for using cell phones as a tool for learning in schools. I read the book back in the fall of 2006, and though I agreed with much of what he wrote in the book, I just did not see the potential for cell phones that he did. A huge failure of imagination on my part.

In my Google Reader feeds recently was an item shared by Harold Jarche (@hjarche), an interview with Royan Lee – “a teacher who’s not afraid of technology” – entitled Class, turn on your cellphones.

Interviewer Jesse Brown introduces the topic with the following:

One of the only places where it is still totally unacceptable to instantly learn about anything with a mobile device is in school.

Like so many things that bring about drastic change, the biggest concern that most parents and teachers (and administrators and school board members) have regarding mobile devices in the classroom is a fear of the unknown. They don’t understand it, so it must be bad, it is something to be afraid of and avoided.

If you are a parent or a teacher  (or administrator or school board member) who thinks that mobile devices have no place in school, then you really need to listen to this interview. It may not change your mind, but at least you’ll have a better understanding of what it is you are preventing.

Mr. Lee also takes on what he sees as a huge myth that needs to be overcome, that because students use this stuff so much they actually know how to use it. (See my post Social savvy, yes – tech savvy, not so much for some more thoughts on that.) Starting at 10:25 –

One big myth that we have is that because students are using Facebook on their own that somehow savvy already in terms of using these devices and their digital literacy…. It never ceases to amaze me how untrue this is. It’s almost frightening, especially the older kids who’ve been using it for a while. In many cases they’ve built up some really bad habits in terms of online behavior and posting behavior.

Knowledge work, video games, and learning

My earlier post on games got me digging through my archives (yet again), where I found two posts looking at knowledge management and knowledge work through the lens of games. Both of these posts are based on James Paul Gee’s book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

This first post looks at the learning aspects of knowledge management and knowledge work. It could use a little updating, especially the part about “managing tacit knowledge” (which we all know can’t be managed), but I’m still pleased with it overall.

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After reading (and writing aboutMarc Prensky’s Don’t Bother Me, Mom, I’m Learning!, I picked up James Paul Gee’sWhat Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. I was expecting a book about video games and the potential ‘good’ they offered. And the book does discuss this.

But the book is really about how video games are an example of how good learning can be enabled, encouraged, and accomplished in any environment. His area of choice is K-12 science education, but the learning principles – 36 of them– can be applied in many other areas.

In fact, Gee compares the environment that players of modern computer and video games inhabit to the world of what is commonly known as knowledge work. In the process, Gee describes a couple of key concepts and processes that those who work in the field of knowledge management will be familiar with.

Because Gee looks at these topics from the perspective of learning, his depictions are a bit different from what I’ve typically seen. For example, here is how Gee describes ‘tacit knowledge‘ (emphasis is mine):

Finally, the Intuitive (Tacit) Knowledge Principle is concerned with the fact that video games honor not just the explicit and verbal knowledge players have about how to play but also the intuitive or tacit knowledge – built into their movements, bodies, and unconscious ways of thinking – they have built up through repeated practice with a family of genre of games. It is common today for research on modern workplaces to point out that in today’s high-tech and fast-changing world, the most valuable knowledge a business has is the tacit knowledge its workers gain through continually working with others in a “community of practice” that adapts to specific situations and changes “on the ground” as they happen. Such knowledge cannot always be verbalized. Even when it can be verbalized and placed in a training manual, by that time it is often out of date.

What stood out to me was the emphasis on the importance of the “community of practice” in the development of an individual’s tacit knowledge and the fact that tacit knowledge is dynamic, never fixed. Tacit knowledge is, in my experience, typically addressed as something unique to an individual, something static. And while it is true, I suppose, that individuals do possess a certain amount of truly unique knowledge that never changes, to be useful most tacit knowledge must be flexible enough to be useful as the individual interacts with the environment.

A key challenge in the field of knowledge management is how to manage this tacit knowledge. Understanding both the individual and social nature of tacit knowledge is an important consideration to keep in mind. In fact, the social aspect, the tacit knowledge of the group if you will, may well be more important than the tacit knowledge of any one individual.

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Life is not a game (or is it?)

Games, especially video games, have always been a big part of my life, both when I was young and now with my family. We all know that games are an important part of growing up, and despite the bad rap that video games get they can be a very positive experience, too.

Over the past few years, I’ve also been contemplating the role games, including video games, influence our life and work. In my “to blog” list, I have a draft, started about 3 years ago, called “Welcome to the World of KnowledgeCraft”.

A couple of days ago, Hacking Work posted this TED Talk from Jane McGonical in which she tells us that if we want to solve the world’s big problems — hunger, war, environmental devastation and more — we need to be gaming more.

Time to dust off that draft and add my own thoughts.

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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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.