December 11, 2007

A note on science

In reading Gary Taubes' new book Good Calories, Bad Calories, along with his recent UC Berkeley webcast, he drew my attention to the great and quotable Claude Bernard, who was the father of the science of medicine, and the man who discovered homeostasis.

Some quotes I think are quite worthy of reflection:

"Particular facts are never scientific; only generalization can establish science."

"A great discovery is a fact whose appearance in science gives rise to shining ideas, whose light dispels many obscurities and shows us new paths."

"In experimentation, it is always necessary to start from a particular fact and proceed to the generalization....but above all, one must observe."

Some ways to look at this:
- If you observe something that contradicts your prevailing theory, perhaps that theory is wrong.

- If you observe something that no mainstream theory explains, perhaps an alternative hypothesis is worthy of further study.

- One does not improve knowledge in a scientific manner by just building, specifying, or explaining new things. One improves knowledge by observing effects, and working back and fitting a consistent hypothesis.

I find in our profession, we most often fall back on arguments from authority over arguments from empirical evidence. This takes several forms: "If a particular vendor/community/person builds it, it MUST be good.", "if the experts agree, it they MUST be right", "if the analysis say it will be so, we MUST invest in it", etc.

Perhaps all of this is because it's so hard to create a controlled experiment when dealing with systems science (except perhaps as simulation). Or because most empirical observations in our field are anecdotal, because we don't have an open environment sharing results due to competition. I also think it may have to do with business managers' need to make technical policy decisions where a YES/NO is required, and tend to be taught that deferrment is bad.

Taubes' book, by the way, is a very deep technical read on the science of obesity, heart disease, fat accumulation and a political history of how policy makers mixed with inconclusive science may lead to a generation or more of disastrous consequences.

I take heart that technologists aren't the only ones known for their great blunders, but I pity the victims. The world needs paradigmatic subversives.

Posted by stu at 01:55 PM

September 19, 2007

Counterfeiting Chaos

I fear for our country's future. If our economy is increasingly based on trade of intellectual works, draconian IP laws are not the way to make this economy flourish.

Canada's current copyright legislation is antiquated and in need of update. It does not have the assumed definitions & scope of "fair use" that currently is under fire within the U.S., whereas we have fair dealing. There are threats that what little fair dealing we have will be taken away if the copyright lobby gets its way with current legislators. The CRIA, Canadian Recording Industry Association, supports Canadian artists less and seems to be more of a shill for US copyright interests. A signficant number of major Canadian artists, including Avril Lavinge, Barenaked Ladies, Feist, Sam Roberts, Sloan, Brocken Social Scene, Billy Talent, Sarah McLachlan, etc., have split from the CRIA and started their own (Barenaked-founded) association, the CCRC, which advocates an end to P2P lawsuits, elimination of DRM, and liberalization of copyright law.

Meanwhile, Canadian CD sales are tumbling, 35% in Q1 of 2007, and 50% annually overall since 1999, while digital distribution is surging. Canadian blank CD-R sales have a copying levy that effectively makes music P2P distribution legal, which amusingly is based on the short-sightedness and slow reaction time of the recording industry lobbyists and legislators, who somehow thought that the CD would be the primary vehicle of copying for 15+ years. Now the CRIA is fighting the very beast they helped create.

So, with this backdrop, it drives me absolutely nuts to read that the RCMP has completely fabricated levels of counterfeiting at $10-30 billion annually, a number that has no basis in fact, but has been trumpeted around by lobby groups and vested interest.

In the words of Stephen Colbert... "It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty."

Posted by stu at 07:32 AM

May 15, 2007

Customer support on Internet Forums, in a nutshell

For all the wonders of the 'net, the cruelty, bile, and childish selfishness in forums sometimes boggles the mind.

From Tseric, a World of Warcraft CM, comes this thread.... The following was particularly apt:

Can't help it.

Posting impassionately, they say you don't care.

Posting nothing, they say you ignore.

Posting with passion, you incite trolls.

Posting fluff, you say nonsense.

Post with what facts you have, they whittle down with rationale.

There is no win.

There is only slow degredation.


When you can understand how a group of beligerent and angry posters can drive away people from this game with an uncrafted and improvisational campaign of misery and spin-doctoring, then perhaps, you can understand the decisions I make. Until you face mobs of psychology, you will not see my side.

Until you see some bright-eyed player coming onto the forums wanting to know what they should spec as this class, and see them shat on and driven away by petty and selfish people who are simply leveraging for game buffs, you will not understand.

You will not understand until you have to see it daily, for years...

Until you understand that many people will trod over you to get where they're going, or to get what they want.

Until you understand that so many people will agree, completely, 100% with a loud, vulgar and assertive individual, not because he is right, but because he is making a stand against "the Man"; to take no critical thought in what they say, but simply to hop on board.

Until you actually try to acknowledge those who do not speak on the forums, for whatever reason they have, you will not understand.

If you think an archaic business formula like "the customer is always right" works, you fail to understand customers, not a customer. It is a collective. No one person, even myself, is truly above the whole.

On the bright side, my guild has a bunch of very respectful & mature people, some families even, and forums are well behaved there.

Posted by stu at 04:51 PM

March 07, 2007

canadian copyright

Michael Geist seems to be one of the few public personas fighting the good fight against the copyright fascists south of the border, and within our own borders. There's also the Canadian Music Creators Coalition, which contains most major Canadian bands that have split from the CRIA, to the point that the CRIA now basically looks like a U.S.-artist Lobby Group within Canadian borders.

I really hope this becomes an election issue. Copyright is not ACCESSright, but that's exactly what large monied interests are turning it into: making it a criminal offense to access any form of content in a way they don't approve of -- perpetually until the end of time. No public domain. No free exchange of ideas. Every original expression with a price tag.

I believe the free market can certainly encourage art, ideas, music, and new expression, and that such things should be protected. But the point is to incent the creation of *new*, *innovative* ideas, not to create perpetual annuities for the distributors of such services.

Posted by stu at 09:42 AM

November 13, 2005

A couple Druckerisms

From Jack Yoest....

"How does Peter Drucker write so much and write so clearly?"

All writers have that moment of looking at a blank page before words form. But Drucker wrote some 30 books.

Mr. Russell shook his head in disbelief. "Peter would start with a large yellow legal pad and write out page after page after page. His first draft."

"Lots of writers do that," I said. "But maybe on a computer."

"Sure," says Russell leaning forward. "But Drucker then rips it up. Throws it out. He never keeps any first draft."

He went on to explain that Drucker knew his subject with such depth and richness that he would use the draft merely as a warm-up exercise before doing the 'real writing.'

On capitalism....

"I am for the free market. Even though it doesn't work too well, nothing else works at all. But I have serious reservations about capitalism as a system because it idolises economics as the be-all and end-all of life."

And an insightful 1 hour podcast from several months ago.

Posted by stu at 07:58 PM

Peter Drucker has passed away at age 95

Drucker, management guru, social ecologist, and probably the most influential author in my life, passed away, fittingly on Rememberance Day, November 11, 2005. He was the king of communicating complex issues. In my opinion, his first 4 books (The End of Economic Man, The Future of Industrial Man, The Concept of the Corporation, and The New Society) remain some of the most insightful political and social commentary since Marx.

Obitutaries from the NY Times, Financial Times, BusinessWeek, and Bloomberg.

Posted by stu at 07:02 PM

June 18, 2005

doctor who

Just finished watching the 1st season finale (got a copy of the BBC airinig). Fantastic. The BBC's website has a great banner for the ep right now; chilling. Doctor Who is the best TV I've seen since Joss Whedon's shows (Buffy, Angel, Firefly) ended. I can't wait for next season.

"Now where was I... Barcelona!"

Posted by stu at 09:26 PM

April 04, 2005

in memory

John Paul Two, I will miss you.

Posted by stu at 07:51 PM

November 17, 2004

Creating meaning and controlling language

Wikipedia is a spectacular phenomenon, representing a true clash in the philosophies of different communications mediums and communities. It's been experiencing a bit of a backlash lately. Some claim that because it is so open to differing viewpoints, even from pre-ported "whack jobs", that one can't actually get at "the real truth" from it. A former editor of Britannia, for example, doesn't really get why so many people like Wikipedia, given its "graffiti in a washroom stall" nature.

I have three points to make about Wikipedia, compared to more traditional references like dictionaries and encyclopedias.

  1. Truth is determined through trust.

  2. There are two major perspectives behind WHAT a reference actually is for.

  3. There are two major cultures behind HOW a reference is communicated (its medium).


PoMo literary criticism gets pretty hairy, but I can pretty much sum it up in 4 words: most text has bias. An encyclopedia like Britannia is no different. But people trust it. Why? Well, here's an idea: Trust is built through time, reputation, and endorsement. Texts compete with one another over time and are challenged by many people's evaluative skills. Wikipedia simply has a lot of growing to reach Britannia in terms of competition, endorsement, and assessing the reputations of the endorsers. It probably will take less time than Britannia took, though (due to the differences in medium).


What is the purpose of a dictionary, or an encyclopedia? Here's a reasonable start: to organize thought and language. This can be a power of great good, or great evil. It can be liberating, or controlling. I propose two approaches to the use of "references": a humanist approach vs. a rationalist approach.

One view is that a reference is a tool for examination, a series of questions, an inquiry into meaning, a weapon against received wisdom and therefore against the assumptions of established power. In other words, an organized Socratic approach.

Another view is that that the reference is a dispensary of truth. An instrument to limit meaning by defining language. It directs what people think. This is the Platonic elitist approach.

How are people supposed to enter into public debate if the concepts which define our society and decided the manner in which we're governed are open neither to understanding nor questioning? Change can only come through what will seem at first to be outrageous statements, provocation, and a stubborn refusal to accept the calm, controlling formulae of conventional wisdom.

Remember: Encyclopedias and dictionaries were largely developed during the enlightenment by folks such as Diderot, Voltaire, and Flaubert as verbal guerilla warfare. They freed language from religion and court politics, and challenged the old regime. They didn't claim to be perveyors of "truth". Which is more true to that spirit -- Wikipedia, or today's encyclopedias or dictionaries?

(Apology: the above is largely a paraphrase of the intro to John Ralston Saul's "The Doubter's Companion")


Both Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis claimed that communications mediums have a tremendous effect on culture, meaning, and interpretation. "The medium is the message", indeed.

Some mediums tend to enhance our communications over a wide area, promoting conformity of knowledge. This is referred to as "space bias" - aka. a "literate" society. Other mediums tend to enhance our communications over time, preserving and evolving knowledge. This is referred to as "time bias" - aka. an "oral" society.

An oral society is immediate -- words are spoken "now", provoking reactions immediately. Knowledge resides in memory and belongs to the community -- and is only available to those who can hear it. A literate society is one where knowledge is a point of view, argued linearly, in a logical order. Thought is stored, but cannot be reacted to ("you can't ask a book a question"). Action becomes seperate from thought, so "planning" becomes popular.

The Internet flips the written word on its head -- it retains some of its qualities, but is much more of a "time biased" experience, and has more in common with oral cultures. The hyperlink, the flame e-mail, the Wiki, Blogs, IRC, instant messaging, even Slashdot -- these are all examples of "immediacy" and "reaction" one couldn't get in a predominate literate view.

Wikipedia could be seen as how an oral society -- the Internet -- creates meaning.

And to an old member of the literate society, it's pretty bizarre.

(Here's the original Slashdot post that this entry is based on.)

Posted by stu at 02:34 AM | Comments (0)

September 27, 2003

on monopolies

I've written some thoughts (in the comments section) on monopoly ethics and on IP law critics on Randy Halloway's entry over the recent @stake/microsoft security flap.

Posted by stu at 02:13 AM

September 23, 2003

reading slowly

Scott Rosenberg comments on the latest meme, that psychology email floating around about how we can all raed eiamls taht hvae tiehr ltetres sbrmlaecd (but it gets harder as the words get bigger).

There's one part of his entry that caught my attention, it seems related to some of Dick Gabriel's writings.

    Reading slowly is a dying art. As our world pushes us inevitably towards more speedy skimming of information blasting at us through a dozen different protocols, we scan more than we read. That makes it easy for us to parse near-gibberish, and that capability is a wonderful thing. But reading slowly is a wonderful thing, too. It is an art we still need in a number of areas. Reading poetry requires the ability to read slowly. If you read a poem the way you read your e-mail, you might as well not bother. Oddly enough, working on computer code requires a similar ability: Both because the computer is far more unforgiving of typos, bad punctuation and garbled verbiage than the human eye, and also becaause in good code, like good poetry, every word counts, and you need to be able to notice the patterns the words establish.

Posted by stu at 05:19 PM

August 31, 2003

The problem with Schumpeter

Related to a Slashdot story on the unstoppable flow of IT jobs to India, I replied to a comment that suggested that none of this really matters because of Schumpeterian growth theory, that economic growth is really about innovation and technological change. I agree, but my views have been tempered by some modern problems of both a political and social nature. Here are the comments.

Posted by stu at 12:18 AM

July 21, 2003


I can't get enough of Peter Drucker's writings, especially on society and politics. If there's ever been a writer that is in tune with the way the world works, it's Drucker. I'm going to talk about Drucker a lot in this blog. Think of this as my introduction of him to you, if you're not familiar with him.

Drucker is one of the best examples of the benefits of keeping an active mind: some of his best work was written in his 80s, and he still continues to write articles such as this Economist survey on the global economy and the "next society" in late 2001. So many of his ideas have pervaded our society's inner workings, it really will be a difficult thing when he passes on (he's going on 94). He was friends with Marshall McLuhan, Karl Polanyi, and Alfred Sloan (he wrote the introduction to the latest edition of Sloan's famous management book). Winston Churchill even gave a glowing review of Drucker's debut book, The End of Economic Man: The Origins of Totalitarianism. He's probably one of the only living people to have attended seminars from both John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter.

I first started reading Drucker in college, back around 1997. I mainly focused on his management writings, but the university library had a number of first editions of his earlier works, that left quite an impression on me, though I don't think I was quite prepared to parse out the implications of those books. Lately (for the past 6 months) I've returned to his earlier writings on society: The Future of Industrial Man, Concept of the Corporation, and The New Society. In these three books, written between 1941 and 1950, he outlines his theory of society, examines the new reality of the society of organizations, and of the new social institution that defines all organizations, whether government, for-profit, not-for-profit: management.

He maintains a strong dislike for totalitarian approaches to society (including socialism), but has a strong skepticism of capitalism, particularily the way it has progressed since the 1980's. Drucker's words are no longer as hallowed as they once were in the executive suites of the Fortune 500 - he's considered somewhat cantankerous because of his constant criticism of both executive pay and the short-term gain aims of shareholder capitalism.

It strikes me that a lot of the ground he covers in these books is still ripe for analysis and discussion to this day. Drucker always was a bit of a contrarian and wild card, he's not quite an academic, but way more literary than most consultants. He's not an economist, but writes about economics. He's not a sociologist, but writes about society. He's not a historian, but knows a lot about history. I believe he once deemed himself a "social ecologist" - interested in the big picture of the interactions between people, society, and organizations.

I think a lot of his teachings and writings have been lost on this generation, even though they're extremely relevant to modern political discourse. His view of society and economics, in particular, is one of the only ones I've seen that transcends both classical and Keynesian economics. He thinks that businesses aren't an end to themselves, but are an organ of society. Consequently he thinks that "profit motive" is bunk, even though profitability is essential.

He's pro-market, but not "lassez faire". He (paradoxically, some might say) believes in strong government, but also in privitization (he arguably coined the term!) and in strong property-rights limitations to governmental power. He is a conservative in the Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton sense, but is certainly not a neo-conservative (of the current Washington-consensus variety).

He also thinks that corporate management represents illegitimate power and the crucial task for our society is to find a socially accepted principle for its legitimacy, lest it crumble under societal revolt (the Enron and Worldcom debacles show this quest is still not over).

And finally, he believes that we now are moving into a "post-capitalist" society, where capital (money allocated towards productive resources) is no longer the key factor of production: knowledge is. And management really is the application of knowledge to work - it's about increasing productivity and innovation. And knowledge workers (his term) will be the representative leaders of society for the coming century. The shift to knowledge as the key resource has tremendous implications for economics, politics, and education, none of which have really been tackled by developed nations seriously.

All of these ideas I probably will talk about in the coming weeks.

Posted by stu at 03:21 PM