we really don't know how to compute

gerald jay sussman compares the adaptability and robustness of biology with the fragility of our engineered technology:

I'm only pushing this idea, not because I think it's the right answer. I'm trying to twist us, so we say, "This is a different way to think". We have to think fifty-two different ways to fix this problem. I don't know how to make a machine that builds a person out of a cell. But I think the problem is that we've been stuck for too long diddling with our details. We've been sitting here worrying about our type system, when we should be worrying about how to get flexible machines and flexible programming.

now take alan kay:

Knowing more than your own field is really helpful in thinking creatively. I've always thought that one of the reasons the 1960s was so interesting is that nobody was a computer scientist back then. Everybody who came into it came into it with lots of other knowledge and interests. Then they tried to figure out what computers were, and the only place they could use for analogies were other areas. So we got some extremely interesting ideas from that.

And of course, the reason being educated is important is simply because you don't have any orthogonal contexts if you don't have any other kinds of knowledge to think with. Engineering is one of the hardest fields to be creative in, just because it's all about optimizing, and you don't optimize without being very firmly anchored to the context you're in. What we're talking about here is something that is not about optimization, but actually about rotating the point of view.

and finally steve jobs:

Ultimately it comes down to taste. It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things in to what you're doing. I mean Picasso had a saying he said good artists copy great artists steal. And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas and I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians and poets and artists and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.

i think there might be something to it...

the interactive web

tim berners-lee:

So, I still have a dream that the web could be less of a television channel, and more of a sea of interactive shared knowledge...

The "World Wide Web" program, the original browser/editor, was in fact an editor, and you could make links as easily as you could follow them. And that was fundamental. There are two things which seem to me to be totally bizarre:

One of them is the fact that you can't do that, that we've lost that. So in fact the thing is not interactive. I don't know if I can think of any hypertext experiments in research where you haven't been able to make links just as easily as following them. Authorship has always been right up there. And now, for some historical quirk, which I could go into, I have gone into, I won't go into, we have a whole bunch of things out there which are "browsers".

So that's the first thing I'm a little embarrassed about. And the second thing I'm embarrassed about is when you made the links, and you edited the text on the screen, you didn't see any of these URLs and HTML and all that stuff. The weirdest thing for me, if you can imagine, is to see an advertisement in the "help wanted" of the Boston Globe, saying they want HTML writers, HTML programmers. I mean, give me a break! That's like asking somebody to come along with the skills to write a Microsoft Word file in binary. The whole thing is totally inappropriate.

funny, how different the vision of inventor of the world wide web was and is compared to what we have now.

logic or biology

leslie lamport:

The fundamental problem with approaching computer systems as biological systems is that it means giving up on the idea of actually understanding the systems we build. We can't make our software dependable if we don’t understand it. And as our society becomes ever more dependent on computer software, that software must be dependable.

When people who can't think logically design large systems, those systems become incomprehensible. And we start thinking of them as biological systems. And since biological systems are too complex to understand, it seems perfectly natural that computer programs should be too complex to understand.

We should not accept this. That means all of us, computer professionals as well as those of us who just use computers. If we don't, then the future of computing will belong to biology, not logic. We will continue having to use computer programs that we don't understand, and trying to coax them to do what we want. Instead of a sensible world of computing, we will live in a world of homeopathy and faith healing.

on advice

i recently found this superb analogy by mike booth which i want to quote in full:

This guy has gone to the zoo and interviewed all the animals. The tiger says that the secret to success is to live alone, be well disguised, have sharp claws and know how to stalk. The snail says that the secret is to live inside a solid shell, stay small, hide under dead trees and move slowly around at night. The parrot says that success lies in eating fruit, being alert, packing light, moving fast by air when necessary, and always sticking by your friends.

His conclusion: These animals are giving contradictory advice! And that's because they're all "outliers".

But both of these points are subtly misleading. Yes, the advice is contradictory, but that's only a problem if you imagine that the animal kingdom is like a giant arena in which all the world's animals battle for the Animal Best Practices championship, after which all the losing animals will go extinct and the entire world will adopt the winning ways of the One True Best Animal. But, in fact, there are a hell of a lot of different ways to be a successful animal, and they coexist nicely. Indeed, they form an ecosystem in which all animals require other, much different animals to exist.

And it's insane to regard the tiger and the parrot and the snail as "outliers". Sure, they're unique, just as snowflakes are unique. But, in fact, there are a lot of different kinds of cats and birds and mollusks, not just these three. Indeed, there are creatures that employ some cat strategies and some bird strategies (lions: be a sharp-eyed predator with claws, but live in communal packs). The only way to argue that tigers and parrots and snails are "outliers" is to ignore the existence of all the other creatures in the world, the ones that bridge the gaps in animal-design space and that ultimately relate every known animal to every other known animal.

So, yes, it's insane to try to follow all the advice on the Internet simultaneously. But that doesn't mean it's insane to listen to 37signals advice, or Godin's advice, or some other company's advice. You just have to figure out which part of the animal kingdom you're in, and seek out the best practices which apply to creatures like you. If you want to be a stalker, you could do worse than to ask the tiger for some advice.

next to the story of the blind men and the elephant i think i just found my new favourite analogy when giving advice.

the gervais principle

venkatesh rao:

Hugh MacLeod's cartoon is a pitch-perfect symbol of an unorthodox school of management based on the axiom that organizations don't suffer pathologies; they are intrinsically pathological constructs. Idealized organizations are not perfect. They are perfectly pathological. So while most most management literature is about striving relentlessly towards an ideal by executing organization theories completely, this school would recommend that you do the bare minimum organizing to prevent chaos, and then stop. Let a natural, if declawed, individualist Darwinism operate beyond that point. The result is the MacLeod hierarchy. It may be horrible, but like democracy, it is the best you can do.

the gervais principle is furthermore defined as:

Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves.

if you have ever worked in or with a big company, this is a must read.

change of affiliation

after close to two and a half years in a whopping big consultancy, focusing mostly on emerging web technologies and human computer interaction, i kinda felt it was time for a change. and so i slowly faded out and started running a small consulting business earlier this year. now, i largely help companies make more money by delighting their users. almost always this boils down to solving business problems and includes topics such as human computer interaction, user experience and information architecture.

oh, and if you are a potential consulting client, i'd love to talk with you.


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