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matt

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the south pointing chariot [Nov. 1st, 2005|03:46 pm]
matt
In an interview in the latest "Make" magazine, Dean Kamen discussed the Chinese invention of the "South Pointing Chariot", which members of his team reconstructed for him as a present one year. The basic premise of the chariot is that it has a series of gears and an indicator which points "south". If one wheel turns faster than the other, the pointer moves to show the degree to which the chariot must turn to compensate.

The point of the story is not to revel in technical genius when a more elegant solution is available: the Chinese people had access to lodestone and were familiar with its magnetic properties well in advance of the invention of the South Pointing Chariot. A device which reliably points direction for navigation and isn't dependent on uniform rolling on the ground is a more reliable and robust solution to the problem posed to be solved by the chariot. Kamen worries that each invention he creates is just another example of a South Pointing Chariot: for instance, he poses and answers the question whether or not the Segway represents an actual improvement on automobiles, mass transit, bicycles, or even walking.

Right now, I'm struggling with the ways we come up with computer-based solutions, and why it seems to me that all solutions are mostly crap. There's a basic need to manage information, in addition to serving as a data repository and retrieval system. Information is distinguished from data in that information is data plus a valuation judgement: when data is interpreted by a hypothesis, information is produced.

Most systems rely on some form of "search" to find information that they know is out there but can't find amidst the clutter. Implemented search is, IMO, more costly than a program of systematic destruction of anything and everything which can become clutter. I've used Google or Windows search many times, mind you, but the act of searching requires an explicit or implicit hierarchy or ontology to pre-exist in order for it to be effective. The costs associated with search and indexing often are a product not only of tangibles like disk space and processor time but also have a whole host of hidden costs including the process associated with remembering (and retaining the staff who remembers) keywords and systems. People love to focus on the tangibles, and it often is done at the expense of the intangibles.

I have been struggling with evaluating two similar yet strongly different solutions to the problem of document information management: Microsoft Sharepoint Portal Server (SPS) and Wikimedia's Mediawiki Server. There's a lot to be said for SPS in termas of enhancing the value of Office documents: most people never get beyond the point of emailing around copies of documents or making excel-based lists of tasks or issues. Alternatively, Wiki can provide a pure text-based solution: wiki is at its root "the simplest thing that could possibly work". Sharepoint, well, isn't, in many ways: although it installs lickety split once you've got a functioning portal to administer, the tyranny of too many options begins to take over and I'm finding it hard to unwind myself from the successful but disorganized mess I made installing it yesterday.

It's kind of like those Franklin Covey brainwashing classes that I'm sure you've all heard about don't kill me if you're a "highly effective person" you can give a huge training class in how to do something boiled down as absurdly simple as "when you have stuff to do, make a list" and stretch that out into an eight hour seminar. I could propose a solution for information management which would amount to the same end result- what Sharepoint and Wiki do isn't much more complicated as making lists and organizing your clutter, but the process and religion which becomes sanctified around the process is time-consuming, cloying, and no better or worse on balance than any other organization system, like naming files something other than "goals.doc" and keeping them in folders named something other than "stuff". In fact, without the religion, there's nothing preventing things like Wiki or Sharepoint devolving into big pages of "goals" about "stuff".

There's also the fact that if you're in a team where many of the team members are burned out, the people you depend on to be fanatical believers often find smart or cynical ways to put themselves at cross-purposes to organization. All systems have problems with the issue of bad actors, but most people try to devolve responsibility for this to something that amounts to a invisible pink unicorn like security. The problem isn't the need for better security: it's how to handle the event of a player at cross-purposes gracefully.

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I have been reading Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini's book, "Inevitable Illusions", which is a fascinating book translated from Italian which attempts to show the differences between machine logic and human thought and summarizes nicely the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Logic and computers follow procedures called algorithms, whereas the brain follows rules called heuristics, and the two processes often result in differing solutions to similar questions. This is used to explain phenomena like why the St Louis Arch seems taller than wide, even though it isn't, even after we're told that it isn't.

I feel that I could spend the rest of my life happily preaching this book. The trouble with religion, like sharepoint or wiki or rationality or humanism or logic or any system, is that it's always the tiger we didn't see, rather than the one we do see, that winds up eating us. And yet, despite this, I can't find it in myself to accept an eschatological system.

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still reading? Have a poll.

Poll #603063 three useless questions

i should subscribe (renew) my subscription to

The Economist (renew)
0(0.0%)
The New Republic (renew)
0(0.0%)
Make (renew)
0(0.0%)
The New Yorker
0(0.0%)
ticky
1(16.7%)

the cure for my ennui is

more rationality
0(0.0%)
more religion
0(0.0%)
more gratuitous sex
0(0.0%)
more gratuitous violence
1(16.7%)
more apathy
0(0.0%)
ticky
0(0.0%)

I should stop worrying and love

the bomb
1(16.7%)
sharepoint
0(0.0%)
wiki
3(50.0%)
ticky
1(16.7%)
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