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February 2007

Alan Kay's & Doug Engelbart's vision

Alan Kay, interviewed in CIO Insight (another link via Martin's links): 

A great thinker in our field is Doug Engelbart, who is mostly remembered for inventing the computer mouse. If you search Google you will find Doug's Web page, where there are 75 essays about what personal computing should be about. And on one of the early hits you can watch the demo he gave in 1968 to 3,000 people in San Francisco, showing them what the world of the future would be like. 

Engelbart, right from his very first proposal to ARPA [Advanced Research Projects Agency], said that when adults accomplish something that's important, they almost always do it through some sort of group activity. If computing was going to amount to anything, it should be an amplifier of the collective intelligence of groups. But Engelbart pointed out that most organizations don't really know what they know, and are poor at transmitting new ideas and new plans in a way that's understandable. Organizations are mostly organized around their current goals. Some organizations have a part that tries to improve the process for attaining current goals. But very few organizations improve the process of figuring out what the goals should be. 

Most of the ideas in that sphere, good ideas that would apply to business, were written down 40 years ago by Engelbart. But in the last few years I've been asking computer scientists and programmers whether they've ever typed E-N-G-E-L-B-A-R-T into Google-and none of them have. I don't think you could find a physicist who has not gone back and tried to find out what Newton actually did. It's unimaginable. Yet the computing profession acts as if there isn't anything to learn from the past, so most people haven't gone back and referenced what Engelbart thought. 

The things that are wrong with the Web today are due to this lack of curiosity in the computing profession. And it's very characteristic of a pop culture. Pop culture lives in the present; it doesn't really live in the future or want to know about great ideas from the past. I'm saying there's a lot of useful knowledge and wisdom out there for anybody who is curious, and who takes the time to do something other than just executing on some current plan. Cicero said, "Who knows only his own generation remains always a child." People who live in the present often wind up exploiting the present to an extent that it starts removing the possibility of having a future.

Lots more besides to enjoy: on the way operating systems have been written as 'layered architecture … even though layered systems don't scale very well' — 'This is an example of the invisibility of normality. We're not even aware that we're accepting most things we accept. Any creative person has to try and force their brain to reconsider things that are accepted so widely they seem like laws of the universe. Very often they aren't laws of the universe; they're just conventions'. On the Viewpoints Research Institute, of which he is President: 

The Viewpoints Research Institute is actually involved in three new projects. One is the $100 laptop project that Nicholas Negroponte is doing. That is coming along very well. The first 1,000 factory-built machines were built in the last few weeks. The plan is to build 5 million to 8 million laptops this summer, and perhaps as many as 50 million in 2008. We're very involved in that. The other thing is a recently funded NSF project that will take a couple of giant steps, we hope, toward reinventing programming. The plan is to take the entire personal-computing experience from the end user down to the silicon and make a system from scratch that recapitulates everything people are used to—desktop publishing, Internet experiences, etc.—in less than 20,000 lines of code. It would be kind of like a Moore's Law step in software. It's going to be quite difficult to do this work in five years, but it will be exciting. 

The third project we're just getting started on and don't have completely funded yet, is to make a new kind of user interface that can actually help people learn things, from very mundane things about how their computer system works to more interesting things like math, science, reading and writing. This project came about because of the $100 laptop. In order for the $100 laptop to be successful in the educational realm, it has to take on some mentoring processes itself. This is an old idea that goes all the way back to the sixties. Many people have worked on it. It just has never gotten above threshold.

On the possibilities for computers and computing experience in the future: 

How much learning is a person willing to do to really learn how to use a computer? The answer, over the last 25 years of the commercialization of personal computing, is almost none. Nobody really wants to put in any amount of effort. The things that people have been willing to learn have tended to be like the media they grew up with, which have really simple user interfaces. (The big exception is video games.) You don't see Doug Engelbart's approach to user interface, which was an incredibly efficient, two-handed interface that required training to learn how to use. 

One way of looking at personal computing is to focus on the kinds of things that computers can help people learn. There are a whole bunch of things that can be done if learning, rather than function, matters. If you were to change the approach to the user interface, as we thought we were doing at Xerox PARC, to a more learning-curve-oriented system, then you would be able to accelerate the acceptance of the newer ideas about what computers can do.

But perhaps most of all: 

… the reason I work with children and not adults is because adults are famously difficult to change in any significant way. They've made a commitment to the norms of the world they live in. Children are born not knowing what culture they've been born into, how the culture thinks, and what that culture thinks is important. Yet they are born with some built-in patterns of thinking that are universal. Since the late sixties, I've been interested in the extent to which you could cultivate the kind of thinking skills that only a few people use in the world today, by getting children to learn much more widely and much more fluently than most adults have. If you want to make a change, get the children to think differently.


No sooner do I post about Auden and include 'The Fall of Rome' ('Cerebrotonic Cato may / Extol the Ancient Disciplines'), than up pops 'cerebrotonic' in another blog post.

'Cerebrotonic' sounds like an Auden coinage, but isn't. Here's the OED:

A. adj. Designating or characteristic of a type of personality which is introverted, intellectual, and emotionally restrained, classified by Sheldon as being associated with an ECTOMORPHIC physique. B. n. One having this type of personality. So cerebrotonia (-{sm}t{schwa}{shtu}n{shti}{schwa}), cerebrotonic personality or characteristics.

1937 A. HUXLEY Ends & Means xi. 165 Dr. William Sheldon, whose classification [of types of human beings] in terms of somatotonic, viscerotonic and cerebrotonic I shall use. Ibid. xii. 193 The cerebrotonic is not such a ‘good mixer’ as the viscerotonic. 1940 W. H. SHELDON Var. Human Physique 8 In the economy of the cerebrotonic individual the sensory and central nervous systems appear to play dominant roles. 1945 A. HUXLEY Let. 2 Apr. (1969) 517 There was just enough of the somatotonic in his..cerebrotonic make-up to make him regret his cerebrotonia. 1950 {emem} Themes & Var. i. 121 Too secretively the introvert, too inhibitedly cerebrotonic, to be willing to take the risk of ‘giving himself away’. 1951 AUDEN Nones (1952) 28 Cerebrotonic Cato may Extol the Ancient Disciplines. 1954 R. FULLER Fantasy & Fugue iv. 75 You..unfortunately incline to the cerebrotonic ectomorph{em}you worry too much, you're too good looking, and you can't abandon yourself happily to booze.

The other blog post? Momus' Celebrating diversity means measuring difference. Momus writes about William Sheldon:

I discovered his writings when I was 20, and trying to understand my own problems and potentialities better. Sheldon proposed what seems at first like a very simple way to measure body types. He isolates three basic components: fatness, muscularity and thinness, which he calls endomorphy, mesomorphy and ectomorphy. … "Ectomorphy means linearity, fragility, flatness of the chest, and delicacy throughout the body," he wrote. "We find a relatively scant development of both the visceral and the somatic structures. The ectomorph has long, slender, poorly muscled extremities with delicate pipe-stem bones, and he has, relative to his mass, the greatest surface area and therefore the greatest sensory exposure to the outside world. He is thus in one sense overly exposed and naked to the world." …

I'm a classic ectomorph, which means that by temperament I'm a cerebrotonic. In ectomorph-cerebrotonics, "the sensory-receptor properties are well developed. As a consequence however the central nervous system (CNS) is soon overloaded and rapidly tires. The cerebrotonic has the gift of concentrating his attention on the external world as well as on his internal world. His vigilance and autonomic reactivity make him behave in an inhibited and uncertain way: introverted behaviour. He has problems with expressing his feelings and with establishing social relationships, and can very well bear to be alone. The elementary strategies of coping with life are perception, reconnaissance and vigilance, cognition and anticipation, and a certain amount of privacy." …

Personally, I like people who structure the world boldly, especially if their structurations ring true. I don't take any structuration as holy writ, though -- I like to play with them, snap them together and pull them apart. But I also like it when structurations make for lovely poetry. The way Sheldon describes the ectomorph has a behaviourist beauty, a 1940s severity. He has "a relative predominance of skin and its appendages, which includes the nervous system; lean, fragile, delicate body; small delicate bones; droopy shoulders; small face, sharp nose, fine hair; relatively little body mass and relatively great surface area".

"The cerebrotonic may be literate or illiterate," says Sheldon, "may be trained or untrained in the conventional intellectual exercises of his milieu, may be an avid reader or may never read a book, may be a scholastic genius or may have failed in every sort of schooling. He may be a dreamer, a poet, philosopher, recluse, or builder of utopias and of abstract psychologies. He may be a schizoid personality, a religious fanatic, an ascetic, a patient martyr, or a contentious crusader. All these things depend upon the intermixture of other components, upon other variables in the symphony, and also upon the environmental pressures to which the personality has been exposed. The essential characteristic of the cerebrotonic is his acuteness of attention. The other two major functions, the direct visceral and the direct somatic functions, are subjugated, held in check, and rendered secondary. The cerebrotonic eats and exercises to attend."

I know next to nothing about Sheldon and need to go back to Momus and read it all again. John Fuller, in his W H Auden: A Commentary, says only this apropos 'The Fall of Rome' and 'cerebrotonic':

Stanza 4: Auden was inclined to prefer the endomorphic type to either the ectomorphic ('Cerebrotonic Cato') or the mesomorphic ('muscle-bound Marines'). The typology is from W H Sheldon.

Momus, quoting Sheldon on endomorphs and mesomorphs:

For comparison, in endomorphs "The body is rounded and exhibits a central concentration of mass. The trunk predominates over the limbs, the abdomen over the thorax, and the proximal segments of the limbs predominate over the distal segments. The bones are gracile and the muscle system is poorly developed. Muscle relief and bone projections are absent. The body displays a smoothness of contour owing to subcutaneous padding. The head is large and spherical, the face is wide with full cheeks. The neck is frequently short and forms in side view an obtuse angle with the chin. The shoulders are high and rounded. The trunk is relatively long and straight, the chest is wide at the base. The limbs are comparatively short and tapering with small hands and feet."

"When mesomorphy predominates, the body is sturdy, hard and firm. The bones are large and heavy, the muscles well-developed, massive and prominent. The heavily muscled thorax predominates over the abdomen. The proximal and distal segments of the limbs are evenly proportioned. The bones of the head are heavy. The face is large in relation to the cranial part of the head. Massive cheekbones and square jaws are the rule. The arms and legs are uniformly massive and muscular, strongly built knees, massive wrists."

Ah, classificatory schema: they have their own fascination

Oh, and one other gem from Momus:

Interestingly, Sheldon met and befriended Aldous Huxley during a residence at a writers and artists' refuge at Dartington Hall in Devon, England. Huxley also recognized himself as an ectomorph and cerebrotonic, and saw it as a limitation …

(Have another look at the clip from the OED above. Wouldn't it be interesting if we could overlay the OED with transfers of social and intellectual relationships? … Hey OUP, open up the OED!) You'll have to click through to iMomus to hear what Huxley had to say.

Poetry, ubicomp and the irreducible, various messiness of the world

From Tom Hume's notes on Fabien Girardin's LIFT07 talk:

The world is messy. … "Seamful design" seeks to reveal the limits, boundaries and uncertainties of ubicomp: reveals the seams. … Seamlessness is the exception: messiness can't be ignored, we need to design technologies with this in mind. Do we really want to live in a calm world?

Jan Chipchase's Future Perfect is amongst my most preferred blogs and I have seen students interested in design light up when they are introduced to it. As Adam Greenfield puts it:

Jan Chipchase’s work is all about surprise. Every time I visit his site I feel that anew, tripped up and humbled by humanity, in all its ingenuity, adaptability and ungovernable particularity.

All of which put into my mind another poet whose centenary falls this year (12 September), Louis MacNeice. Close friend of Auden and, as Grey Gowrie put it on Wednesday, 'lover of women and Donegal', MacNeice died at just 56.

The poem that I am thinking of is, of course, 'Snow' (January, 1935):

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes—
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Hug a shady wet nun

Auden: 'unless I write something, anything, good, indifferent, or trashy, every day, I feel ill' 

Wednesday night I was at the British Library (Shaw Theatre) for the W H Auden centenary reading on the anniversary of his birth. Among the poets, indeed — a good evening. The running order:

  • John Fuller: 'Get There If You Can' (1930); 'The Sphinx' (1938); Miranda's Song (from The Sea and the Mirror) (1942–44). 
  • Peter Porter: 'At Last the Secret Is Out' (1936); 'Lady, Weeping at the Crossroads' (1940); 'Now the Leaves Are Falling Fast' (1936); 'Under Sirius' (1949). 
  • James Fenton: 'Night Covers Up the Rigid Land' (1936); 'Death's Echo' (1936); 'September 1, 1939' (1939). 
  • Sean O'Brien: 'The Composer' (1938); 'The Fall of Rome' (1947); 'The Shield of Achilles' (1952). 
  • Richard Howard: 'On the Circuit' (1963); 'Auden in Milwaukee' (by Stephen Spender) (1940); 'A Walk After Dark' (1948). 
  • Grey Gowrie: 'Deftly, Admiral, Cast Your Fly' (1948); 'In Praise of Limestone' (1948). 
  • Andrew Motion: 'O Love, the Interest Itself in Thoughtless Heaven' (1932); Preface: The Stage Manager to the Critics (from The Sea and the Mirror) (1942–4); 'Lullaby' (1937).

Twenty poems by Auden, then, and of these ten are from the 1930s. Five come from Nones (1951), Auden's first post-war collection of shorter poems ('Under Sirius', 'The Fall of Rome', 'A Walk After Dark', 'Deftly, Admiral, Cast Your Fly' and 'In Praise of Limestone'), and just two, I think ('The Shield of Achilles' and 'On the Circuit'), from the last six collections (omitting Academic Graffiti) — The Shield of Achilles (1955), Homage to Clio (1960), About the House (1965), City Without Walls (1969), Epistle to a Godson (1972) and the posthumous Thank You, Fog (1974). The status of the later poetry is, of course, much discussed, and it is probably the case that we have been too close to it to judge it well. Now, though, a new phase in the interpretation and appreciation of Auden may be beginning. Adam Kirsch wrote a good piece in the NY Sun (via 3quarksdaily), part of which touches on this:

Starting in the early 1940s … Auden developed a very different conception of poetry and its purpose. He began to write about the personal, instead of the public; the spiritual, instead of the political. In style, too, he changed drastically. In place of the elliptical shocks of the early poems, he cultivated a new style, one that combined the hyper-articulate and the campily laid-back. … In place of the private mythos of the early work, Auden now turns to the well-worn figures of Greek and Roman myth. And his tone of voice, even when he is not half-joking as he is here, often comes across as not quite serious, as though all his eloquence were just an ultracivilized game.

So great were these changes that it became necessary to talk about Auden as though he were two poets. … Such striking changes led many of Auden's early admirers to see the evolution of his work as a mere decline. … If the Auden centenary sees any major change in the poet's reputation, it is that such a dismissal of the later, American Auden now looks definitely mistaken. It is still tempting, reading Auden's work chronologically, to regret some of the changes that came in the train of his emigration, and to wonder what poems he might have written if he had stayed in England during World War II. The later Auden will never be as mesmerizing as the early Auden. But it is now clear that he was not, like Wordsworth, a poet who wrote himself out early but still kept on publishing. Rather, Auden's breaking of his own style now looks like one of the key moral gestures of 20th-century English literature. Auden was one of the first great writers to recognize that, after World War II, the modernist vision — with its abstractions and myths, its glamorizing of danger and sacrifice — was no longer sustainable. Poetry, to be credible in a new world, had to be ethical in a new way: scrupulous about its claims, its concepts, even its language.

James Fenton read particularly well (his Guardian tribute to Auden can be read here and there are four paragraphs by him here that are worth reading): 'Death's Echo' is a fine poem and 'September 1, 1939', which might have worked so awkwardly given both all that has been written or said about it and how it has been used, was luminous and, to my mind, unquestionably compelling. Sean O'Brien introduced 'The Fall of Rome' as the most influential poem of the later twentieth century — measured, that is, by the number of attempts poets have made to re-write it.

The last poem of the evening, 'Lullaby' ('Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm'), moved me to tears: a popular poem, but I've never heard it read in public before and it is the poem I could not get out of my mind at the end of the week when my father was dying in September, 2004. He looked dreadful and, as I stared at his wasted face (we had never been closer: he had lost all power of speech but we had never communicated so well as in those last few days together), all I could hear in my head was, 'Mortal, guilty, but to me / The entirely beautiful'. To be moved like this, and to be so surprised, was as powerful and personal a reminder as I could imagine of how deeply affecting Auden's poetry can be.

Charles Madge, founder of Mass Observation and a poet, too, wrote in 'Letter to the Intelligentsia' (1933; quoted here):

But there waited for me in the summer morning,
Auden, fiercely. I read, shuddered and knew
And all the world’s stationary things
In silence moved to take up new positions.


Why 'hug a shady wet nun'? (Why? Why?) Here's the answer in the Guardian leader for 21 February, In Praise of … W H Auden:

… as he gleefully pointed out, his name was an anagram of "hug a shady wet nun" …


Free copies of the TLS for 9 February were available in the Shaw Theatre and Nicholas Jenkins' long essay on Auden covers a lot of ground. (He devotes a sizeable chunk of his essay to the background of 'Lay your sleeping head, my love'. Michael Yates was the 13 year-old schoolboy with whom the 26 year-old Auden fell in love in 1933, and the role W B Yeats' poem, 'A Prayer for My Son', plays in Auden's poem is teased out by Jenkins: 'The identity of the sleeper in Auden's poem had to remain veiled; but the love that dared not speak its beloved's name in 1937 could at last whisper it through the language of parallelism and allusion'. Yeats' poem is addressed to his son, Michael.)

Auden's was a colossal talent: his poetry apart, the prose writings continue to command our attention — he is a great critic and a polymath in scope — and then there is his work as a librettist and translator. Wikipedia (this is the archived page the W H Auden Society prefers): 

Auden published about four hundred poems, including seven long poems (two of them book-length). His poetry was encyclopedic in scope and method, ranging in style from obscure twentieth-century modernism to the lucid traditional forms such as ballads and limericks, from doggerel through haiku and villanelles to a "Christmas Oratorio" and a baroque eclogue in Anglo-Saxon meters. The tone and content of his poems ranged the pop-song clichés to complex philosophical meditations, from the corns on his toes to atoms and stars, from contemporary crises to the evolution of society.

He also wrote more than four hundred essays and reviews about literature, history, politics, music, religion, and many other subjects. He collaborated on plays with Christopher Isherwood and on opera libretti with Chester Kallman, worked with a group of artists and filmmakers on documentary films in the 1930s and with the New York Pro Musica early music group in the 1950s and 1960s. About collaboration he wrote in 1964: "collaboration has brought me greater erotic joy . . . than any sexual relations I have had".

Nicholas Jenkins' essay is wary of any easy, panoptic view of Auden, but in surveying the range of Auden's work Jenkins stirs up much to go on thinking about. This is a typically careful couple of sentences about Auden's prose writing: 'The prose as a whole is remarkable, full of fresh ideas and commanding yet eccentric speculations and intuitions. When it becomes readily accessible in its full extent, it will surely alter preconceptions about Auden'. I liked this quotation from a letter Auden wrote to his father in 1939 (his father had written to say that he preferred Wystan's old poems to the new): 'The writer's problem is that of everyone: how to go on growing the whole of his life, because to stop growing is to die'; and this, to a New York audience in 1946 (talking about Shakespeare): 'a major poet is always willing to risk failure, to look for a new rhetoric'. Jenkins is also good on Auden 'the poet of a deliberately willed uprootedness; he turned himself into the first great poet of that most symptomatic of all social groups in the modern world: those who will not or cannot go home'. 'He made twenty-nine separate journeys that lasted more than two months; twenty-six of those lasted more than five months, blurring the meaning, especially in his later years, of home and abroad, domestic and foreign, here and there. In addition, Auden's homosexuality helped to enforce the social mobility and unpredictability which he thought essential to his freedom as a writer.'

To end on, 'The Fall of Rome':

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.  

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city. 

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

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Will Wright on Spore

Interviewed in

Do you see Spore, or the rest of your games for that matter, as being educational? 

I think in a deep way yeah – that's kind of why I do them. But not in a curriculum-based, 'I'm gong to teach you facts' kind of way. I think more in terms of deep lessons of things like problem-solving, or just creativity – creativity is a fundamental of education that's not really taught so much. But giving people tools… what it means to be human is to learn to use tools to basically expand your abilities. And I think computer games are in some sense a fundamental tool for our imagination. If we can let players create these elaborate worlds, there's a lot of thought, design thought, problem solving, expression that goes into what you're going to create. You know, I think of the world of hobbies, which isn't what it used to be. When I was a kid, you know, people that were into trains had a big train set and they spent a lot of time sculpting mountains and building villages, or they might have been into slot cars or dollhouses or whatever, but these hobbies involved skill, involved creativity, and at some point involved socialization. Finding other people and joining the model train club, comparing and contrasting our skills, our approaches. And I think a lot of computer gaming has kind of supplanted those activities, they have a lot of the aspects of hobbies. Especially the games that allow the player to be creative and to share that creativity and form a community around it. I think just in general, play is about problem-solving, about interacting with things in an unstructured way to get a sense of it and what the rules are. 

Which is counter to current trends -- educational philosophy seems to have taken a huge step towards the three Rs, the basics, what you can regurgitate on a standardized test. And this seems to be going back to process-oriented education, where you're learning problem solving. 

And a lot of it also is… you know, some of the most effective education is failure-based, where you're given a system and you can manipulate it and explore different failure states and success states, and all that. Most of our educational system is designed to protect you from failure. You know – here's how you write a proper sentence, here's how you do a math problem without failing. So basically, they don't let you experience failure. Failure is seen as a bad thing, not as a learning experience. And even when you get to the professional world, things like architecture, engineering, industrial design, they teach you how to do it the right way. Where it used to be you would build five bad buildings and they'd fall down and you'd learn yourself – that was more the apprenticeship, craftsmanship model. You'd build 20 bad chairs but eventually learn how to build a good one because you would learn the failure states yourself, inherently – you'd experience them directly. Whereas when you go to engineering school they teach you how not to fail, so you're never directly experiencing those failures. It limits your intuitions. Whereas a kid playing a game – the first thing they do is they'll sit there and play five or six times and learn from that, and they learn at a very core level in a very different way. They've actually explored the whole possibility space. It's not that they've been told 'don't go there because you'll fail' and so they never go there and never experience it directly on their own. They're encouraged to do that all on their own, in fact they're directly building that possibility map.


Where do you see gaming moving in the future? 

One thing that really excites me, that we're doing just a little bit of in Spore… I described how the computer is kind of looking at what you do and what you buy, and developing this model of the player. I think that's going to be a fundamental differentiating factor between games and all other forms of media. The games can inherently observe you and build a more and more accurate model of the player on each individual machine, and then do a huge amount of things with that – actually customize the game, its difficulty, the content that it's pulling down, the goal structures, the stories that are being played out relative to every player. So in some sense you're teaching the game about yourself and it becomes kind of your ultimate playmate, in terms of knowing 'oh, I think you'd enjoy this' or 'try that,' and it's kind of playing against you. You and I might buy the same game off the shelf one day, play it for a month and, a month later, our games are almost unrecognizably different – because yours has evolved to fit and entertain you, and mine has evolved to fit and entertain me. And I think that's something that's going to be a fundamental thing about games about ten years from now, because we're just starting to see that more and more at this point.

Stephen Heppell

via Martin, I've come across this:

I wrote this for the Times Higher Education Supplement at the end of 2006. To be honest, I don't know what to do about universities - they seem to have sooooo lost direction. There are heaps of good people inside them, but they are lions led by donkeys in many cases, sadly. I've tried (and am still trying) to help, this piece is just part of that effort ... 

The article signalled some of my concern … I was astonished by the level of warm support that this all triggered … History confirms that, without exception, any industry with this level of dissatisfaction across employees and customers has very little time left.

The piece is very short and must be read in full, but to give you some sense of it:

The 21st century is emphatically not the 20th century; then most of our economic success stories might be characterised as "building big things that did things for people", from a national railway network to the National Curriculum. Content was king, education was delivered, wisdom was received. Encyclopedia were sold door to door and knowledge was valued. It was all one way. But in the 21st century all the success stories, from Google and YouTube to the huge growth in our voluntary sector, can be characterised as "helping people to help each other". In economic terms knowledge has become a free good; encyclopedia are remaindered. In this symmetrical world of peer to peer endeavour, companies are discovering the power of agile, collegiate structures with organic project teams. They embrace collaboration and communication above all else. At precisely the same time, our universities appear to be rushing headlong backwards into the 20th century inventing 1970s hierarchies of pro-vice chancellor upon pro-vice chancellor, personal accountability and stultifying accounting procedures.

Meanwhile our schools are producing a newly broad portfolio of potential success: children are podcasting, YouTubing, blogging, performing and animating their way through their learning together. A seductive wave of effective and gender flat performance based science teaching is storming through from Eastern Europe, while project based work is evidencing remarkable ambition and achievement both earlier and faster. These and other global trends like personalisation are pushing the old "delivery" model of learning, with its one-size-fits-all, aside. The result is a generation of ambitious learners worldwide, running way ahead of their criterion referencing; confident, ambitious, achieving and diverse. Faced with this onslaught, universities already look like structurally declining industries. Standards have been confused with standardisation, quality control has been confused with quality assurance. If 21st century learners have a fault, it is their impatience. All round the world they love the progress they can make and are ambitious to do better yet. They will not "power down" to come to school, nor to university.

Currently many universities simplistically look only for productivity gains from technology. Their basic web applications with rudimentary chat forums and pdf notes are emphatically NOT learning, they are delivery. They are a million miles from the complex peer to peer environments with their rich granularity of discourse and temporal sophistication that characterise the world our learners inhabit.

My links for Professor Stephen Heppell can be found here. stats

I'm at FOWA, London, and have just listened to Matthew Ogle and Anil Bawa Cavia from

  • 15 million tracks scrobbled per day 
  • 175 tracks per second 
  • >6 billion tracks scrobbled since 2003 
  • 15 million unique users a month 
  • 10 million artists
  • 70 million tracks
  • 700,000 tracks streamable 
  • 17 million items tagged 
  • 145,000 "artist wikis"

It was an excellent talk, going into attention data and the attention economy of, and the future of's web design (more personalisation, ambient findability). Definitely one to listen to again (an mp3 is promised of each of the talks); Lars has already got a mindmap up and there's a fuller account here from Nodalities. In fact, Nodalities is blogging all the talks on the hoof — so go there! Right now, Werner Vogels, CTO Amazon, has started …


Community Systems

Yesterday afternoon, I went to the OII to hear Ricardo Baeza-Yates, Director of Yahoo! Research Barcelona and Yahoo! Research Latin America in Santiago, Chile:

In this talk we explore the current impact of social media or social networks, commonly called Web 2.0, where content is generated by users in sites like Yahoo! Answers, Flickr, YouTube or This phenomenon puts forward new research challenges that involves not only computer science, but also economy and psychology, just to mention a couple of related fields. We call this emerging new science, community systems, and we mention some of the issues that we are studying, as well as further open problems.

The webcast will, as ever, appear here, but here are some figures, thoughts and ideas that stuck:

  • an estimated 5 billion people will be connected to the web by 2015
  • today, there are 1.8 billion mobile phones
  • 500 million people are expected to have mobile broadband connectivity by 2010
  • the volume of internet traffic has increased 20 times in the last 5 years
  • there are more than 110 million web servers


  • handles >4 billion page views per day
  • processes 12 terabytes of data per day
  • handles 2 million mail+IM messages per day

Ricardo put up a slide of what I now think of as the Bradley Horowitz creators/synthesisers/consumers pyramid (see here), followed by another of the three groups arranged in concentric circles: the history of the web has been from 'public web' (first 10 years) to 'my web' to 'our web', and consuming has now become a form of content production.

And so to user-generated content. In leading early adopter South Korea, 43.2% of the population with internet access has published UGC and 76.2% has used UGC.  Examples of our web: Yahoo! Answers (the idea originated in South Korea), LAUNCHcast ( might have worked better with his audience yesterday, but the point was taken) and Flickr — in the case of the latter, fewer than 10 employees were "aided" by millions in the Flickr community. No surprise that several times Ricardo referred to James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. (Pointers:;

Yahoo!'s vision: better search through people and our trillions of artifacts. Many questions and challenges (eg, How to deal with spam?, How to establish and factor in a user's reputation?, What role does the community of users play?, What are the incentive mechanisms?, Where else can we leverage the power of the people?), but the underlying drive is to put the wisdom of crowds to work, milking query actions (breakdown: 25% informational, 40% navigational and 35% transactional). (Pointer: Yahoo!'s Mindset research site.) Semi-gnomic conclusion: Yahoo! is not seeking to personalise the search query but to personalise the search task (= active information supply driven by user activity and context).

Worth watching the screencast when it's up. There's much more in Ricardo's talk than I've tried to catch here (search language, folksonomic tagging and the inter-relatedness of meanings that Yahoo! explores in search queries …), and I came away puzzled by a couple of things said or asked about blogs, but I liked the emphasis on the web as 'scientifically young'.

Tony Blair

I was listening to the excellent Reduced Shakespeare Company on Radio 4 perform 'The Condensed History of Tony Blair'. You can catch it again here (about 45 minutes in) between now and next Sunday's Westminster Hour. Jonathan Isaby, writing on The Daily Telegraph website:

It opens with the line: "In the next 15 minutes, we will present 10 glorious years of the greatest prime minister ever known to man," announced by Long with several large dollops of irony. Now I did initially wonder whether having Americans playing the characters would work, but it really does. Blair and Brown are played in the style of Californian dudes, rather like Bill and Ted meets Beavis and Butthead. … listen out for the hilarious song about the Millennium Dome, the love duet between Blair and Alastair Campbell, and the 45-second finale which summarises the entire Blair decade.


Armando Iannucci's Observer column yesterday was again great stuff:

Am I going mad? I heard that Tony Blair thinks so. Not just me; everyone. You too. He thinks we're all mad. Someone close to his circle told me recently that the reason Blair seems so resolute, so calm in the face of criticism, is that he thinks the media are just mad. And he confronts unpopularity with the knowledge that we, the public, are turning mad as well. The more we say: 'He's going mad', the more it proves to him that we must be mad. Is that the logic of a madman?

I only mention this because I was struck by the madness of a remark Blair made last week. It was just as the High Court ruled that the government's recent consultation with the public over what our future energy policy should be wasn't consultative enough, and that he and his ministers would have to consult us on the policy again. Asked if this would put on hold his plans to build more nuclear power stations, he said: 'No. This won't affect the policy at all. It'll affect the process of consultation, but not the policy.'

Take a good hard look at that quote again. It's mad. It's based either on a belief in the possession of psychic powers so discriminating they can predict the outcome of a consultation before it happens (which is mad) or they're based on the belief that words have no meaning other than the meaning one chooses to give them and that this meaning can change at any particular moment (which is at least three times as mad as the first example of madness).

John Naughton quoted this yesterday and wrapped up, 'Britain needs a new constitution. At present we have an elected dictatorship which can do what it likes so long as the Prime Minister has a working majority'.


k-punk, writing about Robbie Williams and post-modernism:

There's surely a Robin Carmody-type analysis to be done of the parallels between Williams and Tony Blair. Williams' first album, the tellingly-titled Life Thru a Lens was released in 1997, the year of Blair's first election victory. There followed for both a period of success so total that it must have confirmed their most extravagant fantasies of omnipotence (Blair unassailable at two elections; Williams winning more Brit awards than any other artist). Then, a decade after their first success, an ignominious decline into irrelevance (the post-Iraq Blair limping out of office as a lame-duck leader, Williams releasing a disastrous album and checking himself into rehab on the day before this year Brit awards, at which he had received a derisory single nomination). Of course, there are limits to the analogy: Blair is popular in the States, whereas Robbie...

Williams and Blair are two sides of one Joker Hysterical face: two cracked actors, one given over to the performance of sincerity, the other dedicated to the performance of irony. But both, fundamentally, actors - actors to the core, to the extent that they resemble PKD simulacra, shells and masks to which one cannot convincingly attribute any inner life. Blair and Williams seem to exist only for the gaze of the other. That is why it is impossible to imagine either enduring private doubts or misgivings, or indeed experiencing any emotion whose expression is not contrived to produce a response from the other. As is well known, Blair's total identification with his publicly-projected messianic persona instantly transforms any putatively private emotion into a PR gesture; this is the spincerity effect (even if he really means what he is saying, the utterance becomes fake by dint of its public context). The image of Blair or Williams alone in a room, decommissioned androids contemplating their final rejection by a public which once adored them, is genuinely creepy.

Spincerity — who coined that? Search for it on Google and you get (just now) 87 results, headed, 'Did you mean: sincerity'.

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John Seely Brown

Relearning Learning — Applying the Long Tail to Learning (a lecture delivered on 1 December, 2006):

In a digitally connected, rapidly evolving world, we must transcend the traditional Cartesian models of learning that prescribe “pouring knowledge into somebody’s head,” says John Seely Brown. We learn through our interactions with others and the world, he says, and there’s no more perfect medium for enabling this than an increasingly open and organized World Wide Web.

While the wired world may be flat, it now also features “spikes,” interactive communities organized around a wealth of subjects. For kids growing up in a digital world, these unique web resources are becoming central to popular culture, notes Brown. Now, educators must begin to incorporate the features of mash-ups and remixes in learning, to stimulate “creative tinkering and the play of imagination.”

With the avid participation of online users, the distinction between producers and consumers blurs. In the same way, says Brown, knowledge ‘production’ must flow more from ‘amateurs’ – the students, life-long learners, and professionals learning new skills. Brown describes amateur astronomers who observe the sky 24/7, supplementing the work of professionals in critical ways. A website devoted to Boccaccio’s Decameron welcomes both scholars and students, opening up the world of professional humanities research to all.

The challenge of 21st century education will be leveraging the abundant resources of the web – this very long tail of interests – into a “circle of knowledge-building and sharing.” Perhaps, Brown proposes, the formal curriculum of schools will encompass both a minimal core “that gets at the essence of critical thinking,” paired with “passion-based learning,” where kids connect to niche communities on the web, deeply exploring certain subjects. Brown envisions education becoming “an act of re-creation and productive inquiry,” that will form the basis for a new culture of learning.

via Tony Hirst