Archives for category: Tech

There is a video that is currently being shared on social media by a number of people I know. It is about the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone and the wide-ranging effects this “keystone species” had on the environment. A keystone species is a top-of-food-chain creature whose presence or absence has wide-ranging impacts. In the case of wolves, which had been hunted and eradicated, their reintroduction managed to stabilize elk population and a number of other species as well. Even more, vegetation was affected through secondary means. Indeed, the narration in the video says even “the river adapted” to the reintroduction (fewer grazing animals => less deforestation near rivers => strengthened river banks).

All this is terrific news. But there is a way that this gets reported that gives me pause. The description of the causal loops are presented as if all this was preordained. As if it was obvious that the rivers would strengthen their banks if only there were wolves.

I wonder if the planners really knew that would happen, or whether it is an after-the-fact understanding. Large system responses can be like that: in hindsight it seems obvious. But that is can give the dangerous illusion that we can predict the future if only we are smart enough.

So we get system “flow diagrams” like the one below, which seem at once reasonable and like a Rube Goldberg device:

Click for full size

Click for full size!

The point about some of these large-system effects (eg, the “butterfly effect,” an idea popularized by Edward Lorenz, where the beatings of some butterfly’s wings in one place causes a windstorm elsewhere) is that they are unpredictable ahead of time. We know there are likely to be effects, but cannot say for certain what they will be.

It is tempting for hindsight to make us feel smug when looking at our forebears. They should have known, it is easy to think to ourselves. But the nature of such large, open systems as that this is not always the case. It is impossible to know and account for all initial conditions.

In a class, we have been talking a little bit about “co-production” from the standpoint of federal government organizations. Co-production is the idea that institutions and citizens (or other entities) can and should work in complementary ways. As an example, the “see something, say something” campaign is such an effort.

There are a couple of ways of looking at this idea. One is from an institutional standpoint: How can we get citizens to “do their part?” This is illustrated in a video based on work by Edgar Cahn, called the Parable of the Blobs and Squares:

(Click to watch video on Vimeo.)

(Click to watch video on Vimeo. Alas I cannot embed it.)

The video describes a vexing problem when it comes to co-production. Institutions (squares) tend to force citizens (blobs) to function like squares when they try to work together.

Here is a post by my friend Janis Foster that looks at this video and gives a great and thoughtful recap:

This ingenious video uses cartoon-like blobs and squares to illustrate the different contributions that institutions and people can make in solving problems, and . . . paints a good picture of the relationship that I see most frequently when institutions try to solve problems through the most typical paths of community engagement.

In my experience, community engagement for most institutions (governments, foundations, established non-profits) involves people in institutions (squares) talking to people (blobs) to understand a problem and get their advice on how they should solve the problem. Institutions talk to people individually (surveys) or collectively (focus groups or forums or via other community engagement processes). . . . Too often, when they give grants to community groups, they do that without understanding what they are doing to them by forcing them into a non-profit organization mold by their requirements or expectations.

It also shows what happens to the grassroots groups that people in a community form for mutual aid and collective action become more like squares than blobs – most often, when they are trying to gain legitimacy or find resources in their quest to get something done about a big problem in their community.  They gain something (capacity to do things that squares are good at doing) but they lose something (capacity to do what blobs are good at doing).

This video . . . calls for co-production – a way of working together that allows squares to do what they do well and blobs to bring their unique gifts, perspectives and talents to the table. [O]ne of the things that makes it hard is that we – all of us – have a love-affair with squares and a dismissive attitude about blobs.  Our love affair with squares has made us forget that we all are also blobs in some hours of our day or that the world of blobs even exists.

But it does not have to be this way. We can, instead, see that there are shared concerns that both institutions and citizens have — and that both “squares” and “blobs” have an interest and things to contribute. So instead of seeing Neighborhood Watch programs as “citizens helping the police,” we might instead be able to see a way to define public safety as a shared endeavor in the community. In this instance, then, the police would in fact be “helping the community” rather than vice versa.

This is not pie-in-the-sky, though it is an alternative way of seeing things. Indeed, Nobel Prize winner in economics Elinor Ostrom won her shared award for showing that resources in the commons could be effectively managed through co-production of citizens.

What examples have you seen, if any, of this kind of co-production? My guess is this happens on a smaller scale more frequently than on larger scales.


Some of my friends and readers know I am nearly finished pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at American University. (No, I am not intending to pursue a career in the federal government; the MPA is like the MBA of the social sector and I thought it a useful higher degree to have.) In my current course, which focuses on systems-level technology and change management, I have had the pleasure of re-reading Peter Senge’s seminal The Fifth Discipline, which I read decades ago when it first came out.

When I first read it, I really didn’t know anything about anything and had certainly not worked long enough in any organization to grasp what Senge was saying. So reading this work now has been a highlight of my program.

One of Senge’s core points is that by looking at system archetypes, it is possible to determine ways to address problems that otherwise would be vexing and intractable. That is, by seeing systems we are able to see relationships and leverage points that are otherwise invisible. An example is the “tragedy of the commons” archetype as it relates to, say, traffic. Traffic jams are often the result of a systemic tragedy of the commons, where individual self-interested (and reasonable) behavior results in cars vying for the same small piece of real estate. The knee-jerk reaction to a persistent traffic jam at a certain freeway entrance might be top widen it, the logic being that it must be a bottleneck. But by taking a systems view, another answer might present itself: throttle down the traffic entering the onramp by using, say, an alternate-lane traffic signal.

Senge presents a number of systemic archetypes. But what interests me is that the fundamental building blocks for all of these archetypes are just three processes. Systems are built out of combinations of amplifying processes (which can either go upwards or downwards), balancing processes (where change is resisted by the system), or feedback delays (where there is a lag between cause and effect).

When I read this as a young person, I did not see how sweeping this claim is. Three processes describe all systems. It’s as crazy as saying just four amino acids can be combined to create the blueprint for all of the varied life on Earth!

Ludwig Boltzman's grave. Boltzman first theorized about entropy.

Ludwig Boltzman’s grave. Boltzman first theorized about entropy.

This is important to me, as I study political ecosystems in community. Is it possible to describe all such systems using just three building blocks? I am resistant to the idea. Political systems are comprised of individuals, all acting on their own and operating within multilayered and interlocking networks of association. It seems too mechanistic to think that three Newtonian laws would account for all the activity I see.

I have thought of a fourth potential “fundamental process,” especially as it relates to human behavior, but I am not sure it counts in this way of thinking. The process is entropy: the tendency for any system to move towards randomness unless energy is added into it. This seems like it might be a confounding factor in any of the feedback processes described above.

I’ll keep thinking about it.

Friends and colleagues know that I am very, very heavily into new technology — and I typically put it through its paces. I want everything just to work. I am also seemingly on a constant search to find just the right tool for the right job.

When it comes to matching computing activity with equipment, we have more and more choices today than we ever had.

That is especially true when it comes to mobile computing tasks. Laptops come in all manner of horsepower and form factor, and we use them all heavily in my home, from my son’s large media-based HP (and my MacBook Pro) to my daughter’s use-in-the-bedroom MacBook, my workhorse-professional Sony Vaio running Win7 Ultimate, to our two iPads for around-the-house quick tasks and lightweight business travel, and assorted smartphones including a Droid, Blackberry, and Verizon iPhone.

My Google CR-48 Chrome Notebook

I want to focus on a new tool in the around-the-house-casual-computing space that I have come to use. This space had previously been dominated, in my own life, by my iPad. But, some time ago I was admitted into Google’s Chrome OS Notebook Pilot program. As a part of that program, Google sent me a prototype laptop (there is no branding on it whatsoever) loaded with Google’s new Chrome operating system. They call the computer the CR-48.

The Chrome OS is a new operating system designed to live in the mobile / netbook space. It is lightweight and meant for many, but not all, computing tasks. It is somewhat revolutionary in that the whole operating system is essentially a Chrome browser. There are no applications on the machine, no files and folders to move around or keep track of. It is designed entirely to live connected to the Internet.

The way it works, you turn the machine on and it is ready to go in about 20 seconds or less. You sign in with your Google credentials, and the machine is completely configured for you. Your bookmarks, your email, your Docs, your everything. Nothing lives on the machine, so you can let your son use it and he can sign in with his own Google credentials — when he does, it is ready to rock for him, with his bookmarks and everything.

Using it for a few weeks now, I have found myself gravitating to it more and more around the house, because it is so easy to use. The iPad is awesome and you can only have it after you pry it from my cold, dead hands. However, it always feels limited when I get on the Web. It almost can do everything, but not quite. No Flash videos, of course, but even more important for me is I can’t write a Facebook Note because the way the editor renders, the input box can’t be used. Google Docs are hard to edit too. Just little things like that.

On the other hand, using the CR-48, I am just using a regular browser so it all works perfectly.

At the other end of the scale, I am also finding that the CR-48 is replacing my professional laptop (on my office desk) for many tasks too. The CR-48 has a solid state disk drive (no moving parts) so it feels very sturdy, and it is ready to go on a moment’s notice. I find it easier to pick it up and dispatch a work task. In fact, I will often have my work laptop going, doing something I have to use a computer for, and also have the CR-48 open with my mail and other web applications in use.

Why Do I Need A Real Computer?

So that gets me to: What can’t the CR-48 do? In other words, in what contexts do you need a “real” computer?

I have found three things that I just can’t use my Chrome notebook for:

1) Financial management programs. Like a lot of people, my financial life is lived on Quicken (and on the business side it is lived on Quickbooks). I have so much time, history, and energy invested in those applications that I need to have access to them. There are no suitable web-based versions — yet. Intuit bought, and they are working at integrating Quicken and Mint, but for now they are standing apart. And, while there is a Quickbooks Online, I have found it a little limited and for some tasks it seems to require Internet Explorer (the CR-48 is, by definition, a Chrome browser).

2) Sharing Microsoft Word docs and reviewing them using Track Changes. For almost all document purposes, Google Docs works well and you can throw almost anything at it and it will translate it into a usable web-based document. However, for many professional situations, people prefer to edit documents using Word’s Track Changes feature. You can’t go seamlessly from Word to Docs and back and retain the Track Changes information, so when I am collaborating on documents I sometimes need Word. I have experimented with creating documents that I know will be collaborative in Google Docs from the get-go, but only a handful of colleagues have proven amenable to working in that space. I believe over time this will change, but for now I sometimes just have to bust out Word.

3) Photo management using Picasa. I have a large library of photos and use it frequently for blog posts and other purposes. While there are great online photo management services (Flickr, Picasa) and even great online photo editing services (e.g. Picnik) none of them hold a candle to the ease and speed with which you can work on a desktop.

4) Video production. There are sort of, kind of online video production suites but they work only so-so with Chrome. The bandwidth and processing issues are almost, but not quite, surmounted for this. So, if I want to edit a video, I need to do it on my desktop. (Although, I edit video less and less and my iPhone has an iMovie app I have not yet put through its paces).

Outside of those four specific tasks and contexts, I am finding that I gravitate to my CR-48 as my go-to computer. Here are the main things that make it worthwhile:

  • Outstanding battery life (days on standby, 10 hours in use)
  • Speedy boot and resume (about a second to resume from standby)
  • Great trackpad (multi touch, gestures — some don’t like it but I do)
  • Lightweight machine (physically) yet has everything you need including a keyboard and big screen
  • Lightweight machine (capabilities) yet a full browser so you can do almost anything


Happy Friday!

My friends know that I’ve been waiting with bated breath for the iPhone to finally come to Verizon. I refuse to put up with AT&T’s network problems.

Up to now, I have been happy with my Motorola Droid (I am a big-time Google guy) but in hindsight I have to admit it was always a stopgap while I waited for the iPhone.

Well, now the iPhone is coming, and Verizon has finally dropped the first commercial for it. So, here’s a little diversion to whet your appetite: