Posts tagged “thinking”

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] – [Technology continues to trickle down, where image processing and digital printing previously associated with movie special effects and commercial printing now enable little businesses to crop up, offering fairly unique types of products] Gifts with personalized faces, including custom action figures, celebrity action figures, 3D portraits, masks, jewelry, papercraft, and ornamental heads.
  • [from steve_portigal] How to Have an Idea [Frank Chimero] – [A little comic that amuses as it inspires and teaches, suggesting that creativity is tied to doing, not just thinking or (gulp) talking. Manifests so adroitly while we believe user research really comes alive when you use it to start generating concepts for things to make and do] No one crumples a blank sheet of paper.
  • [from steve_portigal] The Medium – E-Readers Collective [] – [A Kindle feature takes advantage of the inherently digital nature of the medium, but has consequences for the experience] But many writers don’t write aphoristically, and many readers don’t read for aphorisms. In a popularly highlighted world, we all may begin to. The dotted line, like the distinctive hue or underscore that signals a word is clickable on the Web, may be a new kind of punctuation that affects contemporary style. (Amazon's most heavily highlighted books include Gladwell’s “Outliers” and Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture”) Readers coming to e-books freshly purchased from Amazon might be taken aback to find them already marked up. Stumbling on a passage that other people care about, framed as though you should care about it too, can seem like a violation of virgin text. It’s bad enough that vandals have gotten to your “new” edition before you have and added emphases unendorsed by author or publisher. What’s worse is that they invariably choose the most Polonius-like passages.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Mozilla Labs Test Pilot – Test Pilot is a platform collecting structured user feedback through Firefox. Test Pilot studies explore how people use their web browser and the Internet – and help us build better products. Once you install the Test Pilot add-on in Firefox, you will automatically receive notifications on upcoming and finished studies. You have the full control on your participation:
    * You choose if you want to participate in a particular study
    * You can see what data has been collected from you in real time
    * At the end of a study, you choose if you want to submit your data to the Test Pilot servers
    * You also have the option to quit the platform
    * If the test requires you to install a new feature or product, the platform will ask for your permission
  • The Men Who Stare at Goats Featurette – Goats Declassified – While the main film was wry, and a bit weak, this short (an extra track on the DVD) is a curious consideration of bringing in innovative thinking, without regards to what may seem ludicrous, contrary, or transgressive, into the military, a culture that is traditional and closed-minded.


A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
Thomas Mann


Poet Kenneth Goldsmith calls himself an “uncreative writer,” and his works include: everything he said for a week; every move his body made during a thirteen-hour period; a year of transcribed weather reports, and the September 10, 2001 issue of The New York Times, transcribed.

My first reaction to Goldsmith’s work was that it seemed like a good piece of conceptual art scamming, but then I heard him read one of his transcribed weather reports on the radio.

Before he read the piece, Goldsmith explained that the process of transcribing these artifacts creates an experience for him of the poetry in everyday language use. And it was true-as Goldsmith read the weather report, in a fairly rapid, uncadenced style, I was struck by how vividly evocative the place names, the verbs of wind and temperature, the homey advice to “stay indoors” all were.

I think what Goldsmith is doing is a word-focused parallel to what we do in contextual research practice: we carefully observe and document the everyday, as much as possible suspending our own preconceptions of what is and is not significant, in order to see in new ways.

When I was younger, I effortlessly seemed to think in a more lyrical and poetic way than I do now. My hypothesis has been that this change is a result of being more involved with “putting my hands on things” than I was in my 20s. My creative energy now goes much more towards describing and solving problems-juxtaposing complex alternatives, articulating ideas that have the potential for real impact-and there’s just not the same kind of energy available for playing with language.

I’m happy with the direction my way of thinking has evolved, but at the same time, I feel a certain sense of loss for that earlier version of myself, and the ease with which I used to make words do tricks.

Hearing Goldsmith reminded me that I needn’t draw a hard line between between playing with language and solving problems, between the lyrical and the practical-that it’s all out there, evocative and full of potential.

The Box That Is Not A Box (But Is Still A Box)

Chip and Dan Heath write in Fast Company about the power of constraints

Keith Sawyer, author of the insightful book Group Genius, spent years studying the work of jazz groups and improvisational theater ensembles. He found that structure doesn’t hamper creativity; it enables it. When improv comedians take the stage, they need a concrete stimulus: “What if Romeo had been gay?” The stimulus can’t be: “Go on, make me laugh, funnyman.”

“Improv actors are taught to be specific,” Sawyer says. “Rather than say, ‘Look out, it’s a gun!’ you should say, ‘Look out, it’s the new ZX-23 laser kill device!’ Instead of asking, ‘What’s your problem?’ say, ‘Don’t tell me you’re still pissed off about that time I dropped your necklace in the toilet.'” The paradox is that while specificity narrows the number of paths that the improv could take, it makes it easier for the other actors to come up with the next riff.

This is something I’ve emphasized in my talks on improv and ethnography (which always end up being a workshop on improv/ ethnography/ design/ creativity)…the energy that comes from working on problems that are extremely constrained along some axes (i.e., each successive utterance must begin with a successive letter of the alphabet, from A through Z) and utterly open along other axes (i.e., what the actors say can or be anything they want).

It’s been a long time comin’; gonna be a long time gone

The CFA Centre for Financial Market Integrity and the Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics issued a report that recommended less focus on quarterly earnings. This has something to do with how companies can mess with their financial health and their stock prices and their profits and so on, but also is connected to an underlying cultural orientation in businesses around what they are thinking about. It’s hard to innovate if your only measure of succes (as a manager) comes from the impact on quarterly earnings. Innovation, for example, takes longer than a quarter to show results (often). An article [NB: New York Times Select link, probably requires registration and probably will expire] last weekend got me thinking.

The most shocking thing I heard this week about the bad effects of short-term thinking came from a 2005 study conducted by three economists for the National Bureau of Economic Research. They asked a series of questions about the importance of quarterly earnings to more than 400 executives and discovered that almost 80 percent of them said they “would decrease discretionary spending” in such critical areas as research and development, advertising and maintenance if they needed to do so to make the quarterly numbers.

Campbell R. Harvey, a Duke University economist and one of the authors of the study, still sounded a little stunned by the results when I spoke to him. “You would think they wouldn’t want to admit this,” he said. As he saw it, in the wake of the accounting scandals, companies were less willing to use “accounting shenanigans,” as he called it, to meet earnings projections. So instead, “they are doing things that effect the real operations of the company, like postponing R.& D. This is the stuff that creates real value in the long term.”

So why, even after hearing the horror stories, is there still a part of me that says, “Not so fast?” Partly it’s because for all the anecdotal evidence of short-termism and its effects, there is not a lot of empirical data to back it up. Corporations, for instance, still do a great deal of research and development – $250 billion worth each year, according to Baruch Lev, the well-known accounting professor at New York University.

Mr. Lev scoffs at the notion that short-termism is even a problem. “It would be ludicrous to tell managers, ‘we’re going to leave you alone for five years and then come back and monitor your performance,’ ” he said. “Even if you are long-term oriented, you are going to look at how they are doing every quarter.”

The second reason, though, is that as I listened to Mr. Donaldson and the others, I couldn’t help thinking back to the early 1980’s, when the executives themselves made the exact same arguments Mr. Donaldson was making from the podium.

Let’s be honest here: for many of the executives back then, the argument that they were managing for the long-term was bogus. There was too much lethargy in too many companies, and a desire by too many executives to avoid making tough decisions – cutting loose unprofitable divisions, for example. Having sailed through the post-war era without much in the way of global competition, there were plenty of American industries that desperately needed to be shaken up in a tougher, more competitive era. Whatever their flaws, the raiders helped spur that process – in no small part by forcing executives to pay more attention to the stock price.

Ms. Browning of Merrill Lynch told me that she thought “the pendulum has swung too far in terms of focusing on the quarter.” I agree with her. That’s what often happens on Wall Street – and, indeed, in business. We swing from one extreme to the other.

So yes, by all means: let’s get rid of earnings guidance, and start paying executives for achieving important long-term strategic goals that will help the company grow and prosper into infinity. Those are worthy suggestions. But let’s not swing the pendulum back too far.

Surely we’ve learned by now that long-termism can be just as much a problem as short-termism.

Elsewhere in the papers was this piece about The Long Now Foundation and their 10,000 year clock. The interesting bits deal with the notion of long-term thinking

Anyone who thinks about the clock for a while knows that the chances of this project surviving for 10,000 years aren’t particularly good — and it has nothing to do with the physical design. Rose talks about an engineer from India who, after a presentation on the clock, suggested that in 3,000 years future societies would be sacrificing a virgin on the thing — which would gum up the works and end everyone’s hard work.

“My response was, ‘Before you walked into this room, you weren’t thinking 3,000 years into the future, so it’s already worked,’ ” Rose says. “The short-term goal is to change the conversation. It’s a piece of theater, but when you take something seriously enough to actually build it, you go beyond just the conversation and allow a lot of other people entry into that thought process.”


The clock project makes more sense if you just ask individuals to explain why they got involved…

“I’d pour my life for six months into a project, and then at the end of the six months people would look at this marketing material, and then it was basically worthless after that,” says Rose, who worked for video game companies before Long Now. “(After talking with Brand) I just couldn’t get this project out of my head. There were a lot of dot-com startups at that time and that was one direction I could have gone, but this is the project that seemed like it mattered.”

I find this personally relevant as a business owner and as a consultant in the areas of design/strategy/product development. It’s tough going when the economic climate is short-term oriented, because much of the work I do deals with longer-term stuff. When no one is willing to think that way, it’s harder to find work, and the methods and stories get shifted towards the short-term-wins. Yes, that’s important for business, but it’s not everything. On the other hand, it’s easy to feel that short-term fear taking over in one’s own financial worries and impacting the risks one is willing to take. Throw in war, terrorism, global warming in our face, and it’s not so clear what the wise view really is!


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