Archive for October, 2008

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Office Coffee: A Leading Economic Indicator

Office coffee machine

My office supplies coffee, tea and hot chocolate to its employees. There’s filtered cold water and hot water for the tea and chocolate. Coffee requires at bit more work. Someone has to make a pot of coffee which includes putting a filter into the machine and then loading 1 1/2 portions of ground coffee from pre-measured packages. Through experimentation and oral history, I have learned that 1 package of coffee is too weak, and 2 packages of coffee are too strong.

Office coffee is perpetually bad. There many reasons for this. Often the coffee will sit in the pot cooking away for hour after hour– the flavor boiled out of it. Even when cut with milk it’s barely drinkable, an acidic brown liquid. Good office coffee requires social cooperation of a fairly high level. Reasonably good raw materials must be provided. And then the key, there must be a willing group of people dedicated to making and then maintaining the freshness of the brew.

If you think about it, the social contract around the quality of good office coffee requires an effort equal to that of a business like Peets or Starbucks. A single person is unlikely to make that effort; social cooperation is necessary.

The quality of office coffee produced in this manner is a leading economic indicator. We’ll leave to the side for the moment the idea of subsidized office coffee. When the cost of social cooperation to yield a good cup of coffee is sufficiently below the cost of buying a good cup of java– people switch. Labor replaces capital. The better and fresher the office coffee, the worse the surrounding general economy. As the economy improves, the quality and freshness of office coffee will start to deteriorate, and alternatives will start to seem economically feasible. Capital replaces labor (the general replaces the specific).

In a good economy, there are those who will cling to office coffee as a matter of principle. But as the general quality of office coffee will tell you, this is an utopian ideal. Of course “office coffee” is just a variable, we could just as easily be talking about enterprise software.

Take Me To The River: Where Did I Put That Remote?

We live in an age of rivers and streams. As the internet becomes the live web, it’s an increasingly large set of streaming data– images, video, text and sound. We’re back to the infinite number of cable channels that we surf between and among. These streams move at different speeds and are made up of objects/items of different sizes.

Television is the new internet. The Network swallowed the old television network whole. Of course, that was after the DVR permanently changed broadcasting’s relationship with time. Now even live broadcasts can be paused and reversed. The DVR started with one tuner, and moved to two tuners, so two shows could be recorded at the same time. YouTube added an infinite number of tuners.

The remote control is the user interface for the DVR/TV. It switches between channels, scrolls through recordings, searches by title, and controls the flow. These controls are starting to find their way into the live web. Both election.twitter.com and real time friendfeed have added the pause button to stop and start the stream.

Martin Heidegger returned to the ancient Greek idea of aletheia to think about the idea of truth. Here’s a brief explanation:

…aletheia is the truth that first appears when something is seen or revealed. It is to take out of hiddenness to uncover. It is not something that is connected with that which appears. Allowing something to appear is then the first act of truth; for example, one must give attention to something before it can be a candidate for any further understanding, for any understanding of space it must first somehow appear. Untruth, then, is something concealed or disguised.

Contained in aletheia is the river Lethe , one of several rivers in Hades– it literally means forgetfulness or concealment. Aletheia is discovery, uncovering truth that is hidden from view. We can search the past, the stream that has passed us by; or we can track the stream as it first appears. Our tools and interfaces to manage these rivers and streams are primitive. We barely even have a working remote control. Our toolkits are designed to manage documents, we need tools to manage and create streams.

Music of Politics: The Birth of Cool

It was a comment by Aron Michalski on a post-debate NewsGang Live: Obama was like Miles Davis, it was the notes he didn’t play that made the difference. Somehow that’s the image that has stayed with me. It’s not a frame that will gain wide usage, but I find it useful to measure the currents of both politics and technology. Leaving space for the silence, leaving space for the other players to fill in. Not responding to every theme sounded with a long personal improvisation, but sometimes just letting them finish. Letting the silence respond– opening a space for the next theme to be introduced. Perhaps we’re seeing a kind of post-Bebop public political conversation, it may be a new birth of cool. Lowering the temperature of the debate, moving from a hot sound to a cool sound.

And it’s not just a lowering of the temperature, it’s a move to modal jazz and away from being tied down to the chord changes. Wikipedia discusses the new direction of a modal approach:

An understanding of modal jazz requires knowledge of musical modes. In bebop as well as in hard bop, musicians used chords to provide the background for their solos. A song would start out with a theme, which would introduce the chords used for the solos. These chords would be repeated throughout the whole song, while the soloists would play new, improvised themes over the repeated chord progression. By the 1950s, improvising over chords had become such a dominant part of jazz, that sidemen at recording dates were sometimes given nothing more than a list of chords to play from. Creating innovative solos became exceedingly difficult.

In the later 1950s, spurred by the experiments of composer and bandleader George Russell, musicians began using a modal approach. They chose not to write their songs using chords, but instead used modal scales. This meant that the bassist, for instance, did not have to ‘walk’ from one important note of a chord to that of another – as long as he or she stayed in the scale being used and accentuated the right notes within the scale, he could go virtually everywhere. The pianist, to give another example, would not have to play the same chords or variations of the chords, but could do anything, as long as he or she stayed within the scale being used. The overall result was more freedom of expression.

In fact, the way that a soloist creates a solo changed dramatically with the advent of modal jazz. Before, the goal of a soloist was to play a solo that fit into a set of chords. However, with modal jazz, a soloist must create a melody in one scale (typically), which could be potentially boring for the listener. Therefore, the goal of the musician was now to make the melody as interesting as possible. Modal jazz was, in essence, a return to melody.

The addition of flexibility created a return to melody. It seems to be a change that is seeping into the general environment. I’d equate melody with pragmatism.

Everett Dirksen & LBJ

The conservative George Will recently stated that the next president will need to attend to the words of Everett Dirksen of Illinois:

“I am a man of principle, and one of my principles is flexibility.”

As we move in to these difficult economic times, we’ll need to improvise, not on the well-worn chord changes, but within the new modes that we find ourselves. It’s that cool temperament that will be able to reach out and find the melody of our times.

Unringing The Bell: Traction, ReTraction and Zero-Response Time

The Liberty Bell

The page in the newspaper that prints corrections and retractions is one of the most insincere parts of a publication. It’s the old unringing the bell problem. Once a statement is published, there’s no real way to unpublish it. The original image, or in this case the peel of the bell, is the one that continues to resonate in our public discourse.

A common technique in political (and commercial) campaigns is to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about an opponent. One hears the attack ad, but not the rebuttal. This tactic is based on the idea that the retractions morally cancel out the original attack, and therefore they’re allowable. The negative attack gains traction before it is retracted.

The tactic works because of the built in delay– time elapses before a response can occur. The delay exists because of the technical requirements around the production of news, it’s what we call the news cycle. Interestingly, companies create the same kind of delay when they engage in a formal process of constructing replies to conversations in the market.

In the Live Network, there is zero delay. Response is immediate. The model of the news cycle collapses to the simple conversation. You say something; I say something back. You say something, interest swarms around and responds. The bell rings, but a thousand bells ring in response. Think of the sound of change ringing— Change we can believe in.

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