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Foxes vs. Hedgehogs December 14, 2008

Posted by aengus in decision-making, diversity, mental models.
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Here’s a metaphor that you should throw in your backpack if it isn’t in there already.

“The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.”  In other words, is it better to be a specialist or a generalist?  Or both?  The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin used this distinction as the basis of an influential essay published in 1953, and lately the question has come into vogue as a research subject.  The following are excerpts from the introduction to More Than You Know by Michael Mauboussin.  Maubiossin favors the fox approach, or at least feels it’s under-developed and under-appreciated in today’s culture.  I agree and I think that libraries and bookstores are the places to go when you need to sharpen your fox instincts.

The majority of us end up with pretty narrow slices of knowledge.  Most occupations encourage a degree of specialization, and some vocations, like academia, insist on it.  And there are the time constraints.  We’re all so busy talking on the phone, answering emails, and going to meetings, that we don’t have any time left to read, think, and play with ideas….Many [people] view diversity as something that’s nice to have, not something that’s essential to success.  In contrast, I have come to believe cognitive diversity is crucial to solving complex problems.

In his book The Difference social scientist Scott Page demonstrates the logic of diversity.  He shows, using mathematical models, how and why diversity is necessary to solve certain types of problems….Notwithstanding Page’s theoretical contributions, you might ask whether there’s any actual evidence for diversity’s value in predicting the outcomes of complex problems.  The answer, a resounding yes, is based on psychologist Phil Tetlock’s remarkable research summarized in his book Expert Political Judgment.  Tetlock asked hundreds of experts to make thousands of predictions about economic and political events over a fifteen year span.  He then did something quite rude.  He kept track of their results.

Expert forecasters were, on balance, deeply unimpressive.  But Tetlock found some were better than others.  What separated the forecasters was how they thought.  The experts who know little about a lot –  the diverse thinkers – did better than the experts who knew one big thing.

[….]

Charlie Munger’s [Warren Buffet’s business partner] long record of success is an extraordinary testament to the multidisciplinary approach.  For Munger, a mental model is a tool — a framework that helps you understand the problems we face.  He argues for constructing a latticework of models so you can effectively solve as many problems as possible.  The idea is to fit a model to the problem and not, in his words, to torture reality to fit your model.

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Nationwide Free Reference Resources November 18, 2008

Posted by aengus in libraries, reference.
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I’m sure that I’m not the first to suggest this idea, but why doesn’t some federal department (IMLS, Dept. of Education) buy a few reference resources.  For example, after competetive bidding, IMLS buys a year’s subscription to Britannica and Proquest on behalf of the entire country.  The bulk discount would be immense.  The winning company could lay off a huge percentage of its sales staff.  From an end-user perspective, we wouldn’t have to bother logging on with a library card.  The Britannica web site would be completely open to all U.S. ip addresses.  On the downside, libraries wouldn’t be able to brand these resources any more and end users would no longer associate them with the local library.  The sales folks mentioned above would also see this as a losing proposition.

Left-brain or Right-brain or both? November 16, 2008

Posted by aengus in career advice, psychology.
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Sarah, Brenda, and I went to the California Library Association conference in San Jose this weekend, where we saw Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman and several other amazing speakers.

While Brenda was giving an awesome presentation on MaintainIT bookclubs, I snuck out most treacherously (sorry Brenda!) and listened to Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind.  I read his book earlier this year, but I wanted a refresher.  His presentation was excellent because he stuck so closely to the advice that he shared with us at the beginning of the session.  “Successful presentations have three characteristics — levity, brevity and repetition.”

So the main argument.  In tomorrow’s economy (and today’s to a large extent), left-brain, sequential, analytical skills will be less valuable and less in-demand than they are today for three reasons: Asia (i.e. offshoring), Automation and Abundance.  Right-brain characteristics on the other hand will be more valuable because they can’t be offshored and they can’t be automated.  The six holistic, artistic, left-brain skills that will keep us relevant as individuals and as a profession are:

  • Design (aesthetic-awareness + problem-solving)
  • Storytelling ability
  • Playfulness
  • Symphony (ability to see the big picture)
  • Empathy
  • Significance (ability to create meaningful experiences)

To recap:

  • Be brief and funny when you present.  Repeat your major points over and over.
  • The economic trends to watch out for are: offshoring, automation and abundance.
  • The best way to protect yourself is to develop traits and skills described by the six words mentioned above — Design, Story, Play, Symphony, Empathy and Significance

LiveScribe Pulse November 9, 2008

Posted by aengus in gadgets, learning.
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I bought a LiveScribe Pulse last week.  This digital pen captures live audio and syncs it with your written notes, so you can tap on any word in your notebook and listen to what the presenter was saying at that moment you wrote a particular word.  In other words, it’s designed for lectures, presentations and meetings.  It has a microphone, speakers, an infrared camera (for capturing your handwritten notes), 2 GB of flash memory, a processor, and it’s the size of a normal pen.  Well, maybe a little thicker than normal, but it’s very well balanced and easy to write with.

I don’t attend lectures any more, but I sometimes use the LiveScribe when studying alone.  I’ll jot a few notes about something I’m reading, and then read aloud the full sentence or paragraph.  This lets me capture the fuller context, and I’m hoping that the combination of text and speech will increase recall.

Even though I’d recommend this anyone, I have one request for the LiveScribe engineers.  I’d like to see a conversion feature that transforms my chickenscratch into plain text or some other universally-recognized format.  I can search my notes from within the LiveScribe software, so there has to be some rough OCR or voice recognition functionality, but there’s no way to export the results.  So the notes and audio that I’ve recorded so far are tethered to the LiveScribe software.

Overall, it’s an amazing device, and one of the few really useful examples of “ubiquitous computing” — small computers embedded into everday devices so you can take advantage of information processing capabilities where you need it, when you need it.  The power is in the pen, not in your desktop or laptop.  Also, ubiquitous computing implies intuitive, situationally-appropriate user interfaces.  In this case, the Pulse uses a microphone and an infrared camera to take in the relevant information.  These input channels are low-key and unobtrusive.  After awhile, you forget that you’re holding a computer.

Digital Divide News November 9, 2008

Posted by aengus in digital divide, economics.
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From the Freakonomics blog, minorities are adversely impacted by web-based hiring.

Of those job seekers applying by phone, more than 40 percent were minorities. When it came to applying over the web, the share of minorities fell to less than 20 percent. His conclusion: as firms move more and more toward taking only online applications, there could be an adverse impact on minority applicants.