Great App for Ideas; No iPad Version Yet

Although it currently lacks an iPad version, there’s a wonderful software application called Curio 8 that offers a remarkable combination of fully integrated features related to the world of ideas. I discovered it recently, and I’m just beginning to understand how useful Curio 8 can be.

Basically, Curio 8 combines these functions in a single package:

  • Note taking
  • Brainstorming
  • Mind mapping
  • Task management
  • Presentation


It’s a little bit OmniGraffle, a little bit Evernote, with some of the functions of Keynote, but it’s also a drawing program that’s also useful for presentations. Although it’s awkward to describe Curio 8 in terms of other software applications, this particular application more than holds its own in each of these categories (and more).

As in Keynote (Apple’s answer to Microsoft’s PowerPoint, very popular on iPads), you begin by choosing an “Idea Space” (in Keynote lingo, a “theme”). You can then drag documents (PDFs, RTF word processing files, image files; also, web links) into the Curio 8‘s Organizer, and assign properties to each of these items. For example: notes, metadata, color, style, size, color. In addition, as you would with Things or any of the GTD apps (“Getting Things Done,” a fancy to-do list), you can assign filters (“hot”,”under peer review,” etc.) You can also assign the name of an Evernote Notebook or an Evernote Tag because there is deep integration between Curio 8 and Evernote.

That’s only the beginning. Once the Curio 8 “project” is established, you can add any of these and more:

  • Basic shape, styled shape, stencil (all similar to OmniGraffle)
  • A list, such as a to-do list (complete with iCal syncing) or a bulleted list
  • A mind map (similar to XMind or any number of other mapping apps)
  • A table
  • An index card (similar to Corkulus)
  • An screen snapshot (similar to Grab)
  • An audio or video recording

Curio-ScreenThese audio and video recordings must be made live–there’s a built-in recorder. In this version, Curio 8 does not support, say, .mov files, but you can paste the link to a YouTube or Vimeo file (requiring Curio 8 to be used with an internet connection in order to see these files).

But wait! There’s more!! The next set of features allows various sorts of sketching, drawing and painting with a variety of pens and brushes.

You can export the Curio 8 project as a .tiff, .jpeg, .png, .PDF, .html, and for selected items, you can export, for example, a .csv file from a table.

Assets used in one Curio 8 project can be easily accessed for use in another (gee, I wish this was a common feature in Pages and Keynote).

In addition, there’s a bit of scripting that will recall, for example, FileMaker. You can assign an action to a specific asset within a project. Click on a shape and Curio 8 will automatically set up a new email message, or open a URL, or open a specific file.

Curio 8 is the work of a very creative guy named George who lives and works in North Carolina. His company is called Zengobi, and so, you can find out more about Curio 8 by visiting http://www.zengobi.com. In case you’re curious, Zen is, of course, a Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism “that aims at enlightenment by direct intuition through meditation” and Goby is a small fish that swims in the shallow waters near North Carolina.

Often, George reports to his users via his blog. On March 13, he boasted about the addition of “the #1 requested mind mapping feature: mind map relationship lines.” On March 4, he explained the difference between a Concept Map and a Mind Map (the latter allows only one parent diagram per child). Lots of detail, all very useful and all wonderfully focused on the customer’s needs.

ScrivenerThis is the joy of working with a small software company: the product is terrific, and the company is highly responsive to customer needs. The same can be said about Literature & Latte, makers of the equally useful Scrivener word processor for authors, academics, screenwriters and playwrights.

The frustration, both for the company and for the user, is the amount of time required to build applications. In both situations, users have been patiently waiting for an essential tool: the tablet version of the software. Both of these programs are feature-rich. They have set a very high standard and they now serve a very specific niche customer base that expects an extraordinary feature set and a supremely reliable product.Typically, a small company is doing all it can to manage a Mac version (Literature & Latte recently released its first Windows version, but Zengobi has not). Add an app, and not just an iPad app, but a fully functional Android app as well, and the resource tug becomes uncomfortable.

And so, Curio 8 users do precisely what Scrivener users have learned to do. Be happy with the Mac-based product and its evolving feature set, and wait, patiently, for the inevitable release of the iPad app. In both cases, it’s coming soon. Even larger companies must take their time with app development–learning a great deal from every iteration. I’ve become a big fan of the OmniGroup products, happily using OmniFocus to manage my daily affairs, but only on the iPad and iPhone. Turns out, those apps are now so good that the older Mac app is so far behind that I don’t really understand how to use it. So what is OmniGroup doing? Redeveloping the Mac app so that it works the same way as their iOS apps.

We’re all learning a lot from this new wave of software application development. And, mostly, we’re discovering that this is all a very new way of thinking. Getting it right takes time.

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Masterful Storytelling

WritersJourney3rddropWe live in remarkable times. Stories are told in every part of the world, and shared with millions of people. Once, this was the domain of the rich and powerful. Today, anybody can tell a story, and share the majesty of their ideas.

Of course, some stories are better than others. There is an art and a craft to all of this, a discipline studied in college programs and in private instruction taught by masters.

One such master is a Hollywood story consultant named Christopher Vogler. Since 1998, Vogler has been the industry expert on a particular, popular type of storytelling and character development. He explains it all in a wonderful book entitled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers,  now published in its third edition by Michael Weise Productions.

No doubt, you are familiar with the structure of the mythical hero’s journey. You’ve seen it in so many movies. The hero of the story does not begin as a hero. Instead, he or she (more often, he) is an ordinary guy doing ordinary things every day. Then, something happens, and suddenly, he is thrust into an uncomfortable role, reluctant to proceed in anything resembling a heroic journey. Inevitably, the wizened old mentor or the playful talking dog shows up, and the ordinary guy begins to understand that he has no choice, that he must pursue the journey whether or not he wants to do so.

It’s Star WarsThe Wizard of Oz, Sister Act, Big, Raiders of the Lost Ark… you know the routine, but it’s still a story we love to experience, a story we love to tell. It’s the human experience, each time presented anew.

We’re on a mission from God” — Dan Ackroyd and John Landis, screenplay, Blues Brothers

So what’s so special about this book? Well, Vogler has a tidy way of breaking down each of the steps along the journey. For example, after leaving the ordinary world; hearing the call to adventure; refusing the call; meeting with the mentor; encountering tests, enemies and allies; and approaching an innermost cave, the hero is inevitably faced with an ordeal that must be overcome in order to move ahead with the journey. Joseph Campbell, whose book, Hero with A Thousand Faces, covers much of the same territory from a mythological analysis perspective, also arrives, at this point in the journey, at the greatest challenge and the fiercest opponent. So here’s the secret of the ordeal:

Heroes must die so they can be reborn.

To be clear, “the dramatic movement that audiences enjoy more than any other is death and rebirth. In some way, in every story, heroes face death or something like it: their greatest fears, the failure of an enterprise, the end of a relationship, the death of an old personality. Most of the time, they magically survive this death and are literally or symbolically reborn to reap the consequences of having cheated death. They have passed the main test of being a hero.”

Vogler goes on to explain that heroes “don’t just visit death and come home. They return changed, transformed.” So, the ordeal serves as a central core to the story, the place where the variety of story threads begin to tie together in a meaningful way. BUT–the crisis is not the climax of the story. That’s a completely different concept, a part of the story that arrives much later on (near the end, in fact.)

One reason why we love to watch the hero’s journey time and again is because every story is unique. Vogler explains how and why this may be true. Most often, the crisis occurs at the story’s mid-point, which Vogler describes as a tent pole–if it’s too far to one side, the tent sags / the audience’s interest wanes. (He reminds us that our word “crisis” comes from a Greek word meaning “to separate.” Vogler looks at the question of ordeal from many different perspectives, each one a driver that we’ve all experienced in the movies or in good fiction: a crisis of the heart, standing up to a parent, witnessing the death of a loved one, going crazy with emotion, and the list goes on.

If you’re sensing that The Writer’s Journey might be a useful tool for both constructing and de-construcing stories, you’re beginning to understand the value of Volger’s accomplishment. For the writer attempting to tell a story in a way that will ring true for the reader or the audience, this would seem to be an essential tool. For the reader, or the movie fan who wants to better understand the art and craft of storytelling, the deep secrets of the creative team, this book exposes the magic for the trickery that it is, then waves its cape to reveal far deeper magic within. For the English teacher, or professor, in search of a far better way to connect with students who ought to read or write with greater proficiency, here’s the elixir.

Of course, that’s only part of the story: the writing. Next up, from the same publisher: how to tell the visual story to ignite the audience’s imagination.

Big Ideas Simply Explained

Three subjects that I can never seem to understand as completely as I would like:

  • Philosophy
  • Economics
  • Psychology

Whenever I read a book about any of these subjects, I feel like a student, which means, I am reading because duty requires me to complete the book. The subjects interest me, but too many of the books I have read on these subjects are dreary, slow-moving, too dense with ideas for any reasonable person to sort out and retain their valuable understanding. Pictures help, but many of the ideas held within these disciplines are difficult to illustrate with anything better than wordy diagrams.

A year or so ago, I noticed a series of three books put together by Dorling Kindersley (DK)’s collaborative teams in the UK and India. They’ve got the formula right, and as a result, I have spent the last year happily browsing, and learning, from:

  • The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
  • The Economics Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
  • The Psychology Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained

A month or so ago, the same company released The Politics Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained, and at some point, I’ll get to that one, too. Right now, I’m still working my way through the first three volumes (about 1,000 pages total).

Three DK BooksSo what’s so special?

First,there is no single author. The collaborative approach focuses on presentation, clarity and consistency. This is less the work of a brilliant psychology teacher, more like a good old fashioned browse through, say, The World Book Encyclopedia from days of old. The type treatments are bold. There are pull-out quotes. There is color. No single idea runs more than a few pages. Everything is presented in a logical flow. There are boxes filled with biographical details. There is a clear statement of predecessor ideas and influences for each idea, and there is an equally clear statement about those in the future who built upon each idea. There are color pictures and diagrams. It’s tidy, presented for smart adult readers but certainly suitable research material for any school report.

The Philosophy Book is written by four academics and two writers: Will Buckingham is a philosopher and novelist with a special interest in the interplay between philosophy and narrative storytelling. Marcus Weeks is a writer, and author. Clive Hill is an academic focused on intellectualism in the modern world. Douglas Burnham is a philosophy professor and prolific writer on the subject. Peter J. King is a doctor of Philosophy who lectures at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. John Marenborn is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, UK, whose expertise is medieval philosophy. Taken as a group, they’ve got their philosophical bases covered (each of the books is put together by a team with similar skills). Marcus Weeks is the connection between all three books.

The bright yellow Philosophy book introduces the whole idea in comfortable language:

Philosophy is…a chance simply to wonder what life and the universe are all about…Philosophy is not so much about coming up with the answers to fundamental questions as it is about the process of trying to find out those answers, using reasoning rather than accepting…conventional views or conventional authority.”

So begins an introductory essay that introduces debate and dialogue, existence and knowledge, logic and language, morality, religion, and systems of thought and beliefs. A red color burst is the bridge into a timeline that begins the conversation in 624 B.C.E. And so, early on, we meet Pythagoras, who should be famous for more than his geometric theorem. In 428 B.C.E.–that’s about 2,500 years ago–Pythagorus developed a remarkable idea, that everything in the universe conforms to mathematical rules and ratios, and determined that this was true both of forms and ideas. Pythagorus was the leader of a religious cult, in which he was the Messiah, and his followers thought of his work as revelations. Here was a man for whom reasoning was the secret of the universe. He wrote, or said:

There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.”

And:

Reason is immortal. All else is mortal.”

SiddharthaTurn the page and there’s Siddhartha Gautama and Buddhism’s four noble truths, explained in terms that anybody can understand, followed by the Eightfold Path presented in the Dharma Wheel. Siddhartha is covered in four good pages, and then, it’s time for Confucius and his Five Conscious Relationships.

All three of these men–Pythagorus, Siddhartha and Confucius–lived and worked around 500 B.C.E. More or less, they were contemporaries. A century later, philosophy turns to what is later called science, as Democritus and Leucippus come with the idea of atoms and the emptiness of space. (Seemed very early to me, too!) At about the same time, this from Socrates:

The life which is unexamined is not worth living.”

Jumping ahead to the middle of the book, Britain’s David Hume is considering human nature in the mid-1700s, and, in particular, the ways we cobble together facts:

In our reasonings concerning fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance. A wise man therefore proportions his beliefs to the evidence.”

Thinking in the present day, Palestinian philosopher Edward Said criticizes imperialism, Australian Peter Singer advocates for animal rights, and Bulgarian-born French philosopher Julia Kristeva questions the relationship between feminism and power. It’s a large field, and with The Philosophy Book, it’s possible for the average person to navigate with greater confidence than before.

The other two books are equally good.

The Economics Book begins with an article about Thomas Aquinas’s thoughts on prices, markets, and morality; the provision of public goods with thoughts by David Hume, whose words from the 1700s certainly resonate today:

Where the riches are engrossed by a few, these must contribute very largely to the supplying of the public necessities.”

Hume is among the few whose ideas appear in more than one of these volumes. And–I just noticed–The Philosophy Book tends to be stories about the people behind the ideas, The Economics Book tends more toward the ideas with less frequent stories about the people behind them (often because economic ideas are credited to multiple sources, I suppose). Making our way through The Age of Reason (“man is a cold, rational calculator;” “the invisible hand of the market brings order”);  on to economic bubbles (beginning with tulip mania in 1640); game theory and John (A Beautiful Mind) Nash; market uncertainty, Asian Tiger economies, the intersection of GDPs and women’s issues, inequality and economic growth, and more. Great book, but a bit slower going than Philosophy.

Psych Book SpreadThird in the trilogy is the bright red volume, The Psychology Book. As early as the year 190 in the current era, Galen of Pergamon (in today’s Turkey) is writing about the four temperaments of personality–melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric, and sanguine. Rene Descartes bridges all three topics–Philosophy, Economics and Psychology overlap with one another–with his thinking on the role of the body and the role of the mind as wholly separate entities. We know the name Binet (Alfred Binet) from the world of standardized testing, but the core of his thinking has nothing whatsoever to do with standardized thinking. Instead, he believed that intelligence and ability change over time. In his early testing, Binet intended to capture a helpful snapshot of one specific moment in a person’s development. And so the tour through human (and animal) behavior continues with Pavlov and his dogs, John B. Watson and his use of research to build the fundamentals of advertising, B.F. Skinner’s birds, Solomon Asch’s experiments to uncover the weirdness of social conformity, Stanley Milgram’s creepy experiments in which people inflict pain on others, Jean Piaget on child development, and work on autism by Simon Baron-Cohen (he’s Sacha Baron Cohen’s cousin).

When I was in high school and college,  I was exposed to all of this stuff, but only a small amount remained in my mind. Perhaps that was because I was also trying to read the complete works of Shakespeare, a book a week of modern utopian fiction, The Canterbury Tales, and studying geology at the same time. In high school and college, these topics were just more stuff to plough through. No context, no life experience, no connection to most of the material. Now, as an adult, it’s different. Like everyone I know, and everyone you know, I’m still juggling way too much in an average week, but I can now read this material with a real hope of understanding and retaining the material. Cover to cover, times three, these books will take you a year or two, but… without a test the next morning, you’ll be surprised how interesting philosophy, psychology and economics turn out to be. Just read them in your spare time, and behold (great word, “behold”) the ways in which humans have put it all together over several millennia. It’s a terrific story!

You Know, A Lot Can Happen In A Century

In his time, Al Jolson was a superstar. We've managed to get past the need for blackface, and although it keeps changing, showbiz marches on.

In his time, Al Jolson was a superstar. Thankfully, we’ve managed to get past the need for blackface. Show business keeps changing, adapting to times and tastes. And until recently, there was one place to read about these changes, day after day, year after year. Now, that’s changing, too. How? Read on. (You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!)

Today, we’re digital. We live in modern times. These times, we believe, are so new, so unique, that they have no historical precedent. The mythology is tempting, but that’s because the history is just beyond the edge of our ken. We focus on the new. We forget what happened before. Until, of course, we’re reminded of our history as the result of a really good documentary, or a really good book.

vaudeville theatre

A hundred years ago, minstrel shows were just beginning to lose their luster, but it was unclear whether theater audiences would eventually prefer skating rinks, a vaudeville industry based upon national tours (new, in 1906), or bawdy burlesque as a the most popular ways to spend leisure time. Movies were just starting out with an industry of tiny, dubious start-ups and few places where they could be seen by anyone. Live theater was the popular entertainment; actors traveled from one city to another to perform in popular plays, just as they had since the time of John Wilkes Booth. It was a confusing time… The Great War was just beginning and the large theater lobbies were as useful as recruiting stations as they were for pre-performance gatherings. After the war, everything seemed to coalesce. Charlie Chaplin, who had debuted in a US theater in 1910, was sufficiently powerful by 1918 to join forces with movie stars Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and director D.W. Griffith to form United Artists. Then as now, everything happened quickly.

Prior to the 1920s, just about all entertainment was live. The movies were beginning to change that, and as the decade began, a new idea called radio was began as a kind of experiment, it’s post-military use future not yet clear. The year 1920 was one of vaudeville’s best ever. By 1925, radio was becoming popular, but its business model was entirely unclear. From a July 1925 article:

the broadcasters and radio manufacturers continue to tell Department of Commerce officials that no broadcasting station in the country is making money.

Paramount theaterParamount studioBy 1930, 40 percent of US households owned a radio, and by 1940, radio’s penetration was more than 80 percent. By 1930, there was a bona fide motion picture industry with large studios (Fox, Paramount, Loew’s/MGM, RKO and Warner), each with an elaborate distribution network of theaters throughout the country and a distribution infrastructure to service the nation and parts of the world. At the same time, the new NBC and its lesser rival CBS had built a similar structure for radio broadcasting. This structure supported the next level of development: a star system. Lon Chaney, Al Jolson, Fatty Arbuckle, Theda Bara, Duke Ellington, James Cagney, Fred and Adele Astaire, so many others became household names.

The industry grew. There were cartoons from Warner Bros, and Disney, comedy shorts from Hal Roach (Our Gang, Laurel and Hardy), child stars including Shirley Temple, and within a decade, major long-term successes including Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. There was Mussolini, Hitler, FDR, the Roaring Twenties followed by the Great Depression.

Variety bookVariety covered it all. This small, speciality newspaper, a trade rag, was always at the center of it all. When anything happened in or near show biz, Variety told the world. Everybody in “the business” read it, and to be mentioned in it was a clear indication of career success (I was in it, at lease once, and I still have the clipping).

This week, Variety announced that it would cease publishing its daily edition (the weekly remains in print, at least for the foreseeable future). This is not simply a cost cutting measure. Variety, once the trendiest of publications, has been badly beaten in the online entertainment journalism game, and some industry insiders question its survival as a 21st century brand.

Given its illustrious past, I suspect Variety has more fight in it than pundits allow. If you have any doubt, you must spend some time with a book about Variety’s history published by Rizzoli in a tidy coffee table format. The book is entitled Variety: An Illustrated History of the World from the Modt Important Magazine in Hollywood. The last headline in this volume: “Comcast buys 51% of NBC Universal.” I think it’s interesting to note that neither Comcast nor NBC nor Universal existed when Variety’s story began, and even more interesting to consider just how much has happened over the span of a single century. (Parallels with today’s innovative world are particularly fascinating).

Okay, why not? Here’s one of my favorite Variety headlines. This one was on the front page on July 12, 1950:

VIDEO NOW VAUDE’S VILLAIN
Acts and Agents Fear TV Inroads

Can’t help but wonder about a headline that could be written for July, 2050:

WEB, VID DEAD
TV and internet replaced by…

Big Data, Bigger Ideas

face pic human face

Every animate and inanimate object on earth will soon be generating data, including our homes, our cars, and yes, even our bodies”— Anthony D. Williams on the back of a big book entitled The Human Face of Big Data

From the dawn of civilization until 2003, humankind generated give exabytes of data. Now, we produce five exabytes every two days.” — Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google

The average person today processes more data in a single day than a person in the 1500s did in an entire lifetime.

Big Data is much more than big data. It’s also the ability to extract meaning: to sort through masses of numbers and find the hidden pattern, the unexpected correlation, th surprising connection. That ability is growing at astonishing speed, it won’t be long before Amazon’s ability to dazzle customers by suggesting just the right book will seem as quaint as our ancestors’s amazement at horseless carriages.– Dan Gardner, from the book’s introduction

human face big dataClearly, big data is a massive idea. Let’s see if we can’t break it down, if not by components, then, at least, by illustrations of classes and contexts.

The connection between data collection and pattern recognition is not new. In fact, we know the earliest example, which still exists, in book form, in a small, private Library of Human Imagination in Ridgefield, Connecticut. The book is called Bills of Mortality, and it records the weekly causes of death for London in 1664. This data was used to study the geographic (block-by-block) growth of the plague, and to take measures to prevent its future growth.

Two hundred gigabytes per day may not seem like much data, not in the days when you can buy a terabyte drive from Staples for a hundred bucks or so, but collect that much data day and day out, for a few years, and the warehouse becomes a busy place. That’s what MIT Media Lab’s Seb Roy did to learn how his newborn son learned language. The work was done at home with eleven cameras and fourteen microphones recording the child’s every move, every sound. The recording part of the project is over–their son is now seven years old–but analysis of “unexpected connections between the routines of everyday life and how one child learned his first words” continues as a research project.

On the other end of the age scale, there’s Magic Carpet, now in prototype. The carpet contains sensors and accelerometers. When installed in the home of, say, a senior, the carpet observes, records, and learns the person’s typical routine, which it uses as a baseline for further analysis. Then, “the system checks constantly for sudden (or gradual) abnormalities. If Mom is moving more slowly than usual, or it’s 11 a.m., And her bedroom door still hasn’t opened, the system sends an alert to a family member or physician.”

Often, big data intersects with some sort of mapping project. Camden, New Jersey’s Doctor Jeffrey Brenner “built a map linking hospital claims to patient addresses. He analyzed patterns of data, and the result took him by complete surprise: just one percent of patients, about 1,000 people, accounted for 30 percent of hospital bills because these patients were showing up in the hospital time after time…a microcosm for what’s going on in the whole country (in) emergency room visits and hospital admissions…” Subsequently, he established the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers to help address this “costly dysfunction.” He collected the data, analyzed it, then brought out meaningful change at a local level.

One of the many superb photographs depicting the intersection between human life and technology use. The book was put together by Rick Smolan, an extraordinary photographer, curator and compiler whose past work includes A Day in the The Life of America and other books in that series.

One of the many superb photographs depicting the intersection between human life and technology use. The book was put together by Rick Smolan, an extraordinary photographer, curator and compiler whose past work includes A Day in the The Life of America and other books in that series.

Yes, there’s a very scary dark side. Bad people could turn off 60,000 pacemakers via their Internet connections. A real time, technology enabled 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai killed 172 people and injured 300 more thanks to Blackberries, night vision goggles, satellite phones and other devices.

If you control the code, you control the world. There has not been an operating system or a technology that has not been hacked.

Fortunately, the good guys have tools on their side, too. The $40 million Domain Awareness System in Manhattan includes “an array of 3,000 cameras known as ‘The Ring of Steel” that monitor lower and midtown Manhattan as well as license plate readers, radiation detectors, relevant 911 calls, arrest records, related crimes, and vast files on characteristics such as tattoos, body marks, teeth, and even limps. They can also track a suspicious vehicle through time to the many locations where it has been over previous days and weeks.”

Google’s self-driving car is safer than a human-controlled vehicle because the digital car can access and process far more information more quickly than today’s humans.

By 2020, China will complete Compass/Beidou-2. This advanced navigation system will outperform the current (and decades old) GPS system. Greater precision will be used for public safety (emergency response, for example), commercial use (fishing, automotive), and, inevitably, for far more productive war.

Data can mean the difference between life death when the weather turns ugly. Thousands of lives are saved each year by weather earnings in wealthier countries. Yet thousands of lives are lost in poor ones when monsoons, tornadoes and other storms strike with little public warning, an intensifying threat as the planet warms,,,

If you’ve ever wondered what Amazon’s true business is, or why it uses the name of a gigantic river, the answer is big data. Ultimately, Amazon intends to become a public utility for computing services. Take a careful look at Amazon Prime and you will see a prototype. The streaming side of PBS and Netflix are among the enterprises enabled by Amazon’s big data operations.

For FedEx, “the information about the package is as important as the package itself.”

human face big data movementsWhether its eliminating malaria or making art, text messaging for blood donors or tracking asteroids, the future will be defined by the collection, analysis and use of big data. It will shape our individual knowledge about our own bodies, our children’s growth and our parents’ health, our collective tendencies for public good, safety, and bad behavior. It will be embedded in robots and intelligent systems that may, soon, control aspects of life that we once considered wholly human endeavors. It is a change of epic proportions and yet, most of us are unaware of its importance.

The book, The Human Face of Big Data, along with its related website and app, provide a useful gateway into this brave new world.

Only Half of This Is True

Maybe not now. But soon.

Turns out, facts are like radioactive materials, and, for that matter, like anything that’s not going to last forever.

arbesmanMore or less, this is half-life principle, developed just over 100 years ago by Ernest Rutherford, applies to facts, or, at least, a great many facts. This persuasive argument is set forth by Samuel Arbesman in a new book called The Half-Life of Facts. I especially like the sub-title: “What Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date.” Arbesman is a math professor and a network scientist, and, as you would expect, this is a smart book. The book seems more like a musing than a fully worked-out theory, but I suspect that’s because facts are not easy to tame. Herding facts is like herding cats.

HalfLifeOfFactsLet’s begin with “doubling times”–the amount of time it takes for something (anything) to double in quantity. The number of important discoveries; the number of chemical elements known; the accuracy of scientific instruments–these  double every twenty years.  The number of engineers in the U.S. doubles every ten years. Using measures fully detailed in the book, the doubling time for knowledge in mathematics is 63 years, in geology it’s 46 years. In technology knowledge, half lives are quiet brief: a 10 month doubling for the advance of wireless (measured in bits per second), a 20 month doubling time for gigabytes per consumer dollar. With sufficient data, it’s possible to visualize the trend and to project the future.

So that’s part of the story. Of course, it’s one thing to know something, and it’s another to disseminate that information. As the speed of communication began to exceed the speed of transportation (think: telegraph), transfer of knowledge in real time (or, pretty close to real time) became the standard. But not all communications media is instantaneous. Take, for example, a science textbook written in 1999. The textbook probably required several years of development, so let’s peg the information in, say, 1997. If that textbook is still around (which seems likely), then the information is 16 years old. If it’s a geology text, the text is probably valid, but if it’s an astronomy text, Pluto is still a planet, and there are a lot of other discoveries that are absent. And, there are facts rapidly degrading, some well past their half life.

Trans-Neptune

Although you can click to make the image bigger, Pluto still won’t be a planet…

And, then, of course, there are errors. Sometimes, we think we’ve got it right, but we don’t. Along with the dissemination of facts, our system of knowledge distribution transfers errors with great efficiency. We see this all the time on the internet: a writer picks up old or never-accurate information, and republishes it (perhaps adding some of his or her own noise along the way). An author who should know better gets lazy and picks up the so-called fact without bothering to double check, or, more tragically, manages to find the same inaccurate information in a second source, and has no reason to dispute its accuracy. Wikipedia’s editors see this phenomenon every day: they correct a finicky fact, and then, it’s uncorrected an hour later!

Precision is also an issue. As we gain technical sophistication, we also benefit from more precise measures. The system previously used for measurement degrades over time–it has its own half-life. Often, errors and misleading information are the result.

The author lists some of his own findings. One that is especially disturbing:

The greater the financial and other interests and prejudices in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.

And, here’s another that should make you think twice about what you see or hear as news:

The hotter a scientific field (with more scientific teams involved), the less likely the research findings are to be true.

My favorite word in the book is idiolect. It is used to describe the sphere of human behavior that affects the ways each of us sends and receives information, the ways in which we understand and use vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, accent, and other aspects of human communication. A fact may begin one way, but cultural overlays may affect the way the message is sent or received. This, too, exerts an impact on accuracy, precision, and, ultimately, the half-life of facts.

Word usage also enters in the picture. He charts the popularity of the (ridiculous) phrase “very fun” and finds very strong increase beginning in 1980 (the graph begins in 1900, when the term was in use, but was not especially popular).

Time is part of the equation, too. The Long Now Foundation encourages people to think in terms of millennia, not years or centuries. Arbesman wrote a nice essay for WIRED to focus attention not only on big data but on long data as well.

Given all of this, I suspect that the knowledge in the brain of an expert is also subject to the half-life phenomenon. Take Isaac Newton–pretty smart guy in his time–but the year he died, most of England believed that Mary Toft had given birth to sixteen rabbits.

Last week, on CBS Sunday Morning, Lewis Michael Seidman, a Georgetown University professor commented about our strong belief in the power and relevance of the U.S. Constitution (signed 1787, since amended, but not substantially altered):

This is our country. We live in it, and we have a right to the kind of country we want. We would not allow the French or the United Nations to rule us, and neither should we allow people who died over two centuries ago and knew nothing of our country as it exists today.

CBS News Constitution

Imagine the Possibilities

From the innovation consulting firm Idea Champions, Fifty Awesome Quotes on Possibility:

1. “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” – St. Francis of AssisiWoman reaching for star

2. “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – Lewis Carroll

3. “The Wright brother flew right through the smoke screen of impossibility.” – Charles Kettering

4. “In order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd.” – Miguel de Cervantes

5. “The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.” – Henry Moore

6. “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible!” – Walt Disney

7. “I am where I am because I believe in all possibilities.” – Whoopi Goldberg

8. “What is now proved, was once only imagined.” – William Blake

9. “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” – Mark Twain

10. “The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.” – Arthur C. Clarke

11. “Never tell a young person that anything cannot be done. God may have been waiting centuries for someone ignorant enough of the impossible to do that very thing.” – John Andrew Holmes

12. “God created a number of possibilities in case some of his prototypes failed. That is the meaning of evolution.” – Graham Greene

13. “Whether you believe you can or not, you’re right.” – Henry Ford

14. “Most people are not really free. They are confined by the niche in the world that they carve out for themselves. They limit themselves to fewer possibilities by the narrowness of their vision.” – V.S. Naipaul

15. “I don’t regret a single excess of my responsive youth. I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace.” – Henry James

16. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki

17. “The future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious.” – John Sculley

18. “One’s only rival is one’s own potentialities. One’s only failure is failing to live up to one’s own possibilities. In this sense, every man can be a king, and must therefore be treated like a king.” – Abraham Maslow

19. “The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react.” – George Bernard Shaw

20. “We all have possibilities we don’t know about. We can do things we don’t even dream we can do.” – Dale Carnegie

21. “An optimist expects his dreams to come true; a pessimist expects his nightmares to.” – Laurence J. Peter

22. “When nothing is sure, everything is possible.” – Margaret Drabble

23. “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” – Albert Einstein

24. “I am neither an optimist nor pessimist, but a possibilist.” – Max Lerner

25. “If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!” – Soren Kierkegaard

26. “All things are possible until they are proved impossible. Even the impossible may only be so, as of now.” – Pearl S. Buck

27. “Until you’re ready to look foolish, you’ll never have the possibility of being great.” – Cher

28. “This has always been a motto of mine: Attempt the impossible in order to improve your work.” – Bette Davis

29. “You and I are essentially infinite choice-makers. In every moment of our existence, we are in that field of all possibilities where we have access to an infinity of choices.” – Deepak Chopra

30. “Some people see things as they are and say ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and say ‘Why not?'” – George Bernard Shaw

31. “The thing the sixties did was to show us the possibilities and the responsibility that we all had. It wasn’t the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility.” – John Lennon

32. “I love those who yearn for the impossible.” – Goethe

33. “Every man is an impossibility until he is born.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

34. “If you can’t, you must. If you must, you can.” – Tony Robbins

35. “A likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility.” – Aristotle

36. “If someone says can’t, that shows you what to do.” – John Cage

37. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

38. “Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today.” – Mark Twain

39. “Most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done.” – Louis D. Brandeis

40. “The possible’s slow fuse is lit by the imagination.” – Emily Dickinson

41. “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” – Pablo Picasso

42. “If we all did the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.” – Thomas Edison

43. “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” – Les Brown

44. If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” – Henry David Thoreau

45. “Everything you can imagine in real.” – Picasso

46. “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.” – Martin Luther

47. “Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” – James Dean

48. “I don’t dream at night, I dream all day. I dream for a living.”
– Steven Spielberg

49. “The shell must break before the bird can fly.” – Alfred Tennyson

50. “If not you, who? If not now, when?” – Rabbi Hillel

Dream of a Nation: Inspiring Ideas for a Better America

DONCover

Happy new year.

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

That sentence, and the ideas below, are parts of a book entitled Dream of a Nation: Inspiring Ideas for a Better America. Here are some of those ideas:

Shift the rules for campaign financing so that most of the money comes from most of the people. Currently, one-third of one percent of the people provide 90% of campaign funds. This drives special interests, and encourages a system based upon lobbyists that was never a good idea. And, while we on this track, let’s reduce the ratio of lobbyists to legislators: the current ratio of 23:1 (lobbyist to legislator) is probably too high by half (or more).

Let’s take control of our Federal budget (and, in time, our state budgets, too). In Porto Allegro, Brazil, a “citizen participation” approach to budgeting resulted in a 400% percent increase in school funding, and a dramatic increase in funds for clean water and sewers. Budgeting by citizen participation is a new movement that we want to encourage.

If Americans cut bottled water consumption by 80%, then the number of bottles, laid end-to-end, would circle the equator just once a day. Right now, we can circle the equator with bottles every 5 hours.

If each of us thinks more clearly about what we spend, and where we spend it, then the people living in an average American city (say, 750,ooo population) can add over 3,000 new local jobs and shift about $300,000 more into the local economy. How? By spending just 20% more on local, not national, businesses. Go to the local hardware store, the farmer’s market; don’t go to Wal-Mart or Walgreens. In the end, you’ll be richer for it. We all will.

Recognize that the high school drop out crisis is costing the U.S. at least half a trillion dollars each year. Every 26 seconds, a student drops out of school in the U.S. Encourage your legislators to take the time to fully understand the problem and to work with states and school districts to end this problem. The problem is not just the schools: it’s the support systems that do not provide sufficient support for lower-income families. An astonishing one in four American children live in poverty. We know how to change this: we need to focus on what worked during the LBJ years and the Clinton years, and do more of it. And, along the way, we need to invest about $360 million to fix crumbling school buildings. This priority pays off in so many ways: GDP, elimination of crime, family stability, reduction in prison population, so much more. We should no longer accept the idea that 25% of earth’s prison population resides in a U.S. prison–an outsized number for a nation with just 8 percent of the world’s people. Similarly, we should no longer accept the high price of education and the middling results that we achieve with those dollars. Other countries do better because their systems are more reasonable. We need to change the way we think about all of this, and we need to make it clear to legislators that this will be their last term if they do not accomplish what we need done.

Let’s get started on two substantial changes in the ways we work with our money. First, let’s start thinking in terms of a V.A.T., as most Western nations do. If the book’s calculations are correct, this should increase our available funds by about 13%. And second, let’s eliminate the 17% (average) payroll tax, reducing hiring costs for employers, as this model is proving to be more effective than our current approach. For more about this, Get America Working! (not the easiest website for clear presentation of ideas; the book is better).

In Canada, they spend $22 per person on noncommercial educational media (we call it public TV, public radio). In England, they spend $80 per person per year. In the U.S., we spend $1.37 per person per year (less than a bottle of water). If we increase funding to a more reasonable level, of, say, $75 per person per year (one bottle of water per week), we get something as good as the BBC for ourselves and our children. Noncommercial matters.

There’s much longer discussion about carbon footprints, waste, overconsumption, and the need for cars that average 100mpg. And another about rethinking just about everything related to the outsized defense budget and its underlying strategies. We haven’t got the health care concept down yet, but moving it into the public goods shopping cart seems to be a step in an appropriate direction.

We should all become familiar with, and promote, the 8 Global Millennium Development Goals that aim to:

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Achieve universal primary education
  • Promote gender equality and women’s empowerment
  • Reduce child mortality
  • Improve maternal health
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases
  • Ensure environmental sustainability and better access to water and sanitation
  • Create a global partnership for development

So that’s a start. It’s going to be a busy year. And, I hope, one of our best.

Unreasonable

As the year winds down, a call-out to some unreasonable people.

One is called The Unreasonable Institute.

Why We Exist: To create a world in which no one is limited by their circumstances.
Our Mission: To unlock entrepreneurial potential to overcome our world’s greatest challenges.

Three recent college graduates decided to take on the world’s biggest problems–no shortage of idealism here–by causing interactions between promising entrepreneurs with big ideas, mentors, and funders. They do all of this–quite reasonably, I might add–by having everybody work and live together in a big house for several weeks. I’m not sure that “institute” (their term) is the ideal description, but this combination networking fest and dorm experience makes a lot of sense. There are lots of informal interactions between smart, interested, connected people who want to make things happen. I love this idea, and I suspect you will, too.

The second is called Charity: Water.

charity: water is a non-profit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.

Two simple ideas here. One is clean water for everyone, everywhere in the world. That’s a tremendous challenge, one that can be solved only on a local level, well-by-well, source-by-source. It’s also a transformative idea: clean water means healthier people, far less time each day caring for the ill; empowerment of women (who, in many places in the world, expend an enormous amount of time at the well or other source, and carrying water home).

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To play the video, please click on the image.

Both are mentioned here are examples of a new way of thinking about the world’s problems: a small entrepreneurial group with big ideas, unique approaches to management, operations and funding, plenty of attention to details, and, far less reliance upon large organizations to provide solutions. And one more thing: the internet is central to the success of these new conceptions. Be sure to explore Charity: Water’s use of internet mapping for every project, a solid example of things to come.

BTW: while searching for a link, I ran into a Huffington Post story that explains the trend in more detail. It’s definitely worth reading, especially at a time of year when we’re all trying to figure out how to do it even better next week.

A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing

It’s often tempting to consider the past through a present-day lens, and that causes distortion. Take, for example, the idea of a fact. Our ancestors did not elevate the fact as anything of importance. Instead, they considered facts to be evil, in opposition with God’s plan. This way of thinking begins with perception, a capacity that we share with animals. “For them, knowledge had to be something more than what we learn from our senses, because it is such a distinctly human capability of our God-given and God-like soul.”

Thomas Bacon, known for the Scientific Method and for his cool combination of dapper hat, moustache-goatee combo, and stylish  collar.

Thomas Bacon, known for the Scientific Method and for his cool combination of dapper hat, moustache-goatee combo, and stylish collar.

It isn’t until the 1700s that the current idea of a fact takes shape. In the Italy of the 1500s, double-entry bookkeeping is among the first presentations of fact as a decision-making tool. In England, in the 1700s, Francis Bacon’s work on the scientific method led the way toward building theories based upon “particulars,” not deduced from a grand theory. Of course, this way of thinking sidelined generally accepted beliefs, a radical idea at that time, and in our times, too.

220px-Thomas_Malthus

Thomas Malthus

You may recall that Thomas Malthus theorized that food supply would not keep pace with population growth. His initial documents were based, mostly, upon deduction. His later documents were based upon well-researched fact. The shift in thinking occurred during his watch, before and after the year 1800.

Portrait of Jeremy Bentham by Henry William Pickersgill

Portrait of Jeremy Bentham by Henry William Pickersgill

Enter Jeremy Bentham, a Malthus contemporary. Bentham’s theory, simplified: government ought to provide “the greatest happiness of the greatest number [of people]” In order to do the job, government would need a clear picture of the people it served (also a new idea, government as service, but that requires another article).

The word “statistics” enters the language around this time: stat, of course, is German for the state.

By the 1830s, the British government is obsessed with this powerful tool: facts. They commission a series of Blue Books filled with facts, statistics, anecdotes, interviews and more. The Blue Books are reports about “poverty, crime, education, and other social concerns.”

Charles Dickens, who made fun of his government's newfound love for facts.

Charles Dickens, who made fun of his government’s newfound love for facts.

By the 1850s, the clever novelist Charles Dickens grows weary of the fact-based Blue Books. From Dickens’ Hard Times, “We hope to have, before long, composed of commissioners of facts, who will force the people to be a people of fact and of nothing but fact.”

By around the 1900s, fact-finding missions had become common, and World War I becomes the first war fought, largely, upon the basis of facts.

At the risk of capturing the obvious idea, our contemporary media environment is skewed because opinion and pontificating is, often, more entertaining than fact-based thinking. Rush Limbaugh gets the ratings; the Encyclopedia Britannica ceases publication. Constitutional scholar Cass Sunstein says, “Many people are mostly hearing more and louder echoes of their own voices.” His context is the internet, where groups of like-minded people share their beliefs, and by their numbers, magnify ideas that may not be fact-based into cultural touchstones. He goes further to explain that members of those groups are becoming less likely to communicate with people outside the group, and wonders whether this supportive groupthink is detrimental to democracy. (So much for the hope that the abundance of information, and facts, on the internet would encourage interaction between these groups.)

And that leads to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, who believes that the internet is “weakening our capacity for the kind of ‘deep processing’ that underpins ‘mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”

220px-Al_Gore_at_SapphireNow_2010_croppedA parallel path also leads to Al Gore, who asked this question in his book, The Assault on Reason: Why do reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way American now makes its important decisions?”

Perhaps the answer to Mr. Gore’s question is complexity. We learn arithmetic but not calculus, we have been taught to think in simple linear terms, not in terms that help us to understand the complex, dynamic system that our society has become. Our contribution to the chain begun by Bacon: the mapping of complex systems that change over time. It is these systems that draw facts into the future, and these models that provide potent vaccination against those who theorize on the basis of beliefs, not facts.

On another parallel path is the passionate amateur. Included in that class would be both Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel, neither one a scientist, each a relentless cataloguer of observations, and, as a result, a theorist whose ideas are based upon endless study and analysis.

Jenny_McCarthy_at_E3_2006And, there is the celebrity whose role is related to a megaphone. Ideas that might not otherwise reach a large audience become popularized because a celebrity become involved. When former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy and actress Jenny McCarthy started making noise about vaccinating our children, people paid attention. The Michael J. Fox Foundation is attempting to resolve the delicate balance between Mr. Fox’s own story and fame, and the broader agenda that must drive the Parkinson’s foundation (that carries his name). The Fox foundation has been intelligent and thoughtful in its use of social media, engaging individuals, on a large scale, to participate in trials and other research. Here, the “particulars” are the individual cases, the undeniable truth of daily life with a disease not yet cured.

Too Big To Know

How does all of this come together? The fact is, we’re still figuring out the answer to that question. David Weinberger’s book, Too Big To Know, the source of many of the ideas and all of the quotes in this article, does a fine job in raising questions and providing examples. Addressing the crisis of knowledge (his belief, with which I do not wholeheartedly agree), Weinberger suggests that we open up access to a much broader range of facts; link everything in sight; dig deeply into institutions to make their knowledge available to a larger population; and relentless teach so that we all gain a better understanding of how our world works, and how it might work in the future.

BTW: The article’s title, A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing refers to love as explained by lyricist Hal David for the Broadway musical, Promises, Promises.

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