Blog Haiku #35

See the badges shine!
Points! The leaderboard I climb!
Empty achievement.

Essential Graphics #1

The Lack of Insight Edition

In 1949, John Gurden received the following biology report card from his professor at Eton College:

Sir John Gurdon, Nobel Prize winner, was 'too stupid' for science at school

“His other work has been equally bad, and several times he has been in trouble, because he will not listen, but will insist on doing his work in his own way.”

He was 15, and ranked last in his class of 250. What ever happened to John Gurdon?

He was this year’s co-recipient of the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine. In the end, Dr. Gurdon’s 1949 report card reflects the inadequacies of the teacher, not the student. In this case, the student succeeded in spite of, not as a result of, the teachers efforts. One is left to wonder, how often this happens and how many students remain lost, never finding their way.

Exit question: How will you teach today?

Why We Do What We Do

A colleague of mine is of the opinion that “we won’t have truly evolved as a species until we stop doing things simply because we can. Perhaps it is more like we won’t know we have truly evolved as a species until we stop doing things because we can.” I counter with the opinion that we evolve precisely because we do things with no apparent reason other than we can. Discovery is the result of curiosity mixing with exploration and action. This is at the heart of what drives science. As Steve Holmes observes:

Usefulness comes not from pursuing it, but from patiently gathering enough of a reservoir of material so that one has the quirky bit of knowledge…that turns out to be the key to unlocking the problem which someone offers.

The history of scientific advance is filled with examples of individuals exploring the unknown not with the goal of utility, but to quench a driving curiosity and desire to know. The mere satisfaction of this desire is the only justification they need. Yes, bad people do bad things with good knowledge. But as Abraham Flexner observes,

The real enemy is the man who tries to mold the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings.

Good Intentions, Bad Results

In The Logic of Failure, Dietrich Dörner makes the following observation:

In our political environment, it would seem, we are surrounded on all sides with good intentions. But the nurturing of good intentions is an utterly undemanding mental exercise, while drafting plans to realize those worthy goals is another matter. Moreover, it is far from clear whether “good intentions plus stupidity” or “evil intentions plus intelligence” have wrought more harm in the world. People with good intentions usually have few qualms about pursuing their goals. As a result, incompetence that would otherwise have remained harmless often becomes dangerous, especially as incompetent people with good intentions rarely suffer the qualms of conscience that sometimes inhibit the doings of competent people with bad intentions. The conviction that our intentions are unquestionably good may sanctify the most questionable means. (emphasis added, Kindle location 133)

That sounds about right. To this I would add that incompetent people with good intentions rarely suffer the consequences of imposing their good intentions on others.

The distinguishing feature of a competent good intentioned individual and an incompetent good intentioned individual is the ability to predict and understand the consequences of their actions. Not just the immediate consequences, but the long term consequences as well. The really competent good intentioned individuals will also have a grasp of the systemic effects of acting on their intentions. The result is such individuals are deliberate in their actions and less likely to act or react emotionally to circumstances.

What Language Do You Speak?

The Logitech webcam software installer doesn’t seem to know what to offer.

Logitech Webcam Software Installation

(Click for larger image.)

QA and testing. Still important.

Uncertainty About Uncertainty

We’re definitely living in interesting times. And increasingly uncertain times.

Scientists Cast Doubt On Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle

The World Needs More Booths

Amen, brother.

Remember face-to-face conversation? You know, sharing thoughts, talking through concerns, sketching out ideas, and having intelligent discussions without the overblown internet persona outrage? You have instant feedback through facial expressions, tone of voice, and spoken word. You have instant ability to clarify a particular point, on the spot. You get a better “read” of where the other person is coming from. And, you get better engagement in the conversation.

Conference rooms, court rooms, hospital rooms, elevators – these are some examples where the space presupposes a particular way of behaving and communicating (or, in the case of elevators, not communicating.) The informal setting of a booth, however, allows for a comfortable space to let some of the usual barriers to conversation fall away.

Coffee Couple

Many of the most memorable conversations and exchanges of ideas in my life happened in restaurant booths. They weren’t all good, but most of them were and all of them were important. Add in a good cup of coffee and they can be incredibly creative spaces. Perhaps it’s just a lucky spacial anchor thing. However it happened, the result is that booths, particularly coffee shop booths, are my go-to spaces for near-instant solace and creativity. So much so that just this past week we kicked off a major renovation here at the Dojo that includes, among many other things, a breakfast booth off the kitchen. The design of the booth is being completed by the same designer/builder of the booths at Racine’s Restaurant – perhaps my second all-time favorite Third Place behind The Market.

Alas, that booth is perhaps five months away. But when it’s done, it will be excellent.

Guaranteed.

(H/T Michael Wade, Image credit: johnny_automatic)

Failure to Think Through to the Unintended Consequences II

I posted previously about the unintended consequences of switching from disposable plastic grocery bags to reusable cloth bags provided by shoppers. I’m seeing this issue get a little bit of traction lately. The Property and Environment Research Center has an interesting PSA video on the subject.

Many jurisdictions have implemented bans or taxes on plastic grocery bags on environmental grounds. PERC Lone Mountain Fellow Jonathan Klick argues, however, that reusable grocery bags contain potentially harmful bacteria, especially coliform bacteria such as E. coli.

The explosive growth of EPA regulations has resulted in an environment of contradictory mandates and rules that are poised to do much greater harm than good. The poorly thought out grocery bag crusade is but one example.

Colorado Burning

I just finished the introduction to dynamic modeling workshop sponsored by iSee Systems in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It was excellent. The presentations by Steve Peterson and Corey Peck were also excellent. I’ll blog about this at a later date. A bonus was being able to see my brother and his family for one of the evenings.

The downside was the multiple forest fires raging close to the city. I captured this picture on Monday:

Forest Fire 1

And these on Tuesday. The first pair gives some perspective of the view looking North and then Southwest.

Forest Fire 2

(Click for larger picture.)

Forest Fire 3

(Click for larger picture.)

These were taken from the car as I drove back home:

Forest Fire 4

Forest Fire 5

And this picture during lunch today:

Forest Fire 6

(Click for larger picture.)

Altruism and Systems Thinking

The Unintended Consequences Edition

Man likely sickened by plague in critical condition in Bend (Oregon)

“The unidentified man, who is in his 50s, fell ill several days after being bitten while trying to get a mouse away from a stray cat. The man is now being treated at St. Charles Medical Center-Bend, where he was listed in critical condition on Tuesday.”

Good intentions very frequently have bad outcomes. For an excellent read on this subject, I suggest “Pathological Altruism”, edited by Barbara Oakley.

And thank you for reading this post. Because I only ever really, really, really had your best interests in mind and it was, after all, for your own good.

Update: 2012.06.18

Slashdot thread on the story here.