Archive for December, 2008

DARPA seeks algorithms to create stories from info fragments

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

One of the nicest aspects of blogging is when a reader points you to an interesting article you hadn’t seen. I’d like to thank reader S.E. August for this reference.

Wired’s Danger Zone blog reported last week that DARPA is looking to sensemake various forms of data by combining them into stories.

The Cognitive Edge training I took last week discussed (among many other topics) gathering narrative fragments into composite stories as a way to make sense of a situation and convey that information to others. Similar thus far. A possibly reality-defying assumption follows, though. According the Danger Zone post:

The author of this tale, however, would be a series of intelligent algorithms that can pull all of this information together, tease out its underlying meanings, and put it in a narrative that’s easy to follow.

In the Cog Edge method the sensemaking is done by a group of humans, not a computer. The assumption is that distributed cognition of a group of people can elicit meaning where a single person, or a computer, cannot. I’m not up on the latest in artificial intelligence, but I’m doubtful that an entirely computerized approach can yield anything of use.

Perhaps a partially-computerized method, where fragments were gathered (sampled?) by machine and sensemade by humans, would work better. Or if the fragments could be human-coded as they were captured the significant or related ones might be easier to isolate. I don’t know. Can any readers weigh in who are more optimistic that a totally-computerized approach might work?

A link to the DARPA RFI is here.

(Photo by cote via Flickr creative commons)

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A Personal Story

Monday, December 8th, 2008

I woke up early Saturday morning. As I lay in bed trying to fall back to sleep, it occurred to me that the work for my biggest client was slowing down and I wasn’t sure what I could do to ensure it continued. A prospect had emailed me earlier this week with some ideas to scale back the work I had proposed to do for him. And a couple of other prospects I was hoping to close hadn’t returned some emails I’d sent over the past couple of weeks.

Despite enjoying one of the busiest months since I went out on my own, I allowed that morning’s sleep to be ruined by thoughts and worries over the future. Such is the life of an independent contractor, and given the current economic climate, these worries are affecting many others as well.

Thankfully, an article in the Sunday New York Times pointed out that this fear is a natural process of our brain when confronted with uncertainty and threat. “When Fear Takes Over Our Brains,” by Gregory Berns of Emory University, furthermore, reminds us that “when the fear system of the brain is active, exploratory activity and risktaking are turned off.”

And this is the problem with recession or whatever you want to call it–people and businesses stop exploring and taking risks. Other people read in the newspaper (every single day) about the hunkering down of these groups, become afraid, and hunker down themselves.

Berns talks about what he is doing during this time to get himself and his brain thinking again, moving past the fear. Sharing his own fears and plans is a gift and helps me focus on what I should be doing. This week, I’ll be working hard on all my current projects. I’ll be calling prospects back who I haven’t heard from. I’l be thinking of new things I can do with may big client and proposing them. And I’ll be reflecting on other actions I can start and other opportunities I can pursue.

Because I won’t get paralyzed thinking about the bad things that could happen. And if we all can put the fear aside, and start exploring and taking risks–even small ones–we will begin to shape the next era, beyond this recession.

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Example of a blog attracting user stories

Friday, December 5th, 2008

Sorry for this somewhat awkward syntax of this post. I am composing it on my Blackberry 8830. This is significant because the post concerns David Pogue’s eviscerating review of the new touchscreen Blackberry Storm mobile phone.

In response to the review, Pogue received more than 100 stories of people who also hated their newly-bought Storm. There were also dozens of defenses of the Storm and RIM, its maker. And many more comments in response to the post.

Pogue’s post served as an attractor, stimulating all sorts of vibrant customer feedback. As a product manager and someone interested in innovation, this example is fascinating and illustrative of how social computing is revolutionizing market & customer intelligence.

What does all the feedback mean? Probably lots of things: the Storm has serious issues; RIM has committed, passionate users; Apple is a hard act to follow, etc.

Whatever it means, let’s hope that RIM is listening, sensemaking, and acting. If they want some guidance, tell them to shoot me an email.

By the way, composing this post on the 8830’s thumb keyboard & tiny screen has been agonizing. I was hoping the Storm might be my next step. Now I’m not so sure.

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It’s time for the “Numerati” to step back

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

I’ve been reading the book “Einstein’s Mistakes” by Hans Ohanian and though it’s been a lot different from my expectations (I was looking for mistake stories and through 150 pages haven’t found many) it has proved useful in spurring some thoughts.

One such thought has been the consequences of the growth of science and logical thinking. The first part of “Einstein’s Mistakes” describes the roles of Galileo, Newton, Maxwell and others in setting the stage for Einstein’s relativity theories. What this brief physics history reinforced to me was the gradual rise to preeminence of logic and mathematics in the processes of human thought–at the expense of philosophy, sociology, anthropology.

Interestingly, even in these legendary clear thinkers there was the all-too-human urge to self-protect and rationalize. Notable was Galileo’s effort, according to Ohanian, to fudge the numbers so that his calculations would match what he knew to be correct about the heavens.

Next on my list to read (around “War and Peace“) is Stephen Baker’s “The Numerati.” I find I come to this book with loads of prejudgments. From the press and the jacket copy, the book celebrates the numerization of our thinking. Which I believe is mostly bad news.

This kind of number-worship has brought us financial risk mitigation that paradoxically increased risk, created AAA-rated bonds which were actually of junk status, and any number of other examples of solid financial and numerical logic that under examination simply failed the common-sense test. In other words, a hedge fund that studied human nature might have made a lot of money these last few years.

To me, “The Numerati” is behind the times. We’ve seen the apotheosis of the logical/mathematical revolution, and it ain’t pretty.

It’s time to put numbers into their context, and begin to shift more investment to understanding people, how they think, feel and relate to one another. This is where the money will be in the future, and this is what society needs now.

As Dave Snowden writes, “It’s not that social computing has created some completely new form of human interaction, what it has done is to enable conversations across barriers and boundaries. We can now be a global tribe (or rather tribes), if we can make the changes that the technology permits.”

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For deep, narrow coverage, blogs are better than mainstream media

Monday, December 1st, 2008

A few Philistines are still maintaining that blogging isn’t a worthy medium for intelligent discussion, that it’s somehow less valuable than the “professional media.”

Yes, there are crappy blogs out there, just like there are crappy newspapers and magazines. The low barrier to entry of blogging means there is more crap–but, long-tail style, there is also content of tremendous value, erudition, power and influence.

I learned of one more example today. Tanta, who wrote for the Calculated Risk blog, died over the weekend.

She warranted an obituary in the New York Times and a mention from James Surowiecki (from that most professional media outlet, the New Yorker). Here’s another tribute from Felix Salmon at Conde Nast Portfolio.

And it wasn’t because she wrote about Paris Hilton or LOLcats. According to the Times,

Thanks in large part to Tanta’s contributions, Calculated Risk became a crucial source of prescient analysis as the housing market at first faltered, then collapsed and finally spawned a full-blown credit crisis.

Blogs allow writers with deep, narrow expertise, like Tanta, to pass on their learning, share their opinions, and illuminate that which for most of us is unknown. For me, in particular, I still read general-interest media, like the Times, New Yorker, WSJ, HBR, etc. But for subjects I want to explore more deeply, blog content is far better and more valuable.

There’s no way Tanta would have had a voice twenty or even ten years ago. That’s a benefit to readers everywhere. Including, as her case makes clear, those from the “professional media.”

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