fighting the lack of good ideas

reference materials

I learned recently that my wonderful wife was never taught how to use a dictionary, thesaurus, almanac, or encyclopedia as a child in school.

Not all of that can be because she went to public school whereas I was homeschooled. Nor can it merely be that she grew up in KY and I in NY.

I’ve seen myriad others younger than her that can’t use those resources, either ūüôĀ

Most people have the basics of how to search online down – but barely the basics*. In many ways, I think online tools are killing our ability to think critically in some areas – learning to ask questions well is one of those areas..

Why are these tools still important in a digital age? Well, what do you do when you need to find something and you don’t have your iPhone, Android, tablet, laptop, etc handy? Do you wait until you have internet access again?

What about when you are looking for something at a library or book store – do you exclusively rely on the staff’s knowledge to help you find what you want, or can you start to locate it yourself?

Part of the problem is that schools, because of the misguided legislation that is NCLB, all teach to the test. Tests can be wonderful tools – but they have no bearing at all on the “real world“. Your ability to score a perfect ACT, ASVAB, GRE,¬†SAT, etc means precisely bupkis.

Being able to find what you need when you need it once you’re out of school, however, will be your daily lifeline to keep from drowning at work and in life.

I remember many times having to learn how to use new reference materials – and how to use ones I already had been introduced to in better, more efficient ways (I still look for better ways to find what I need with tools I have). I remember an entire class day devoted to learning what an almanac is (the Information Please, to be specific), and then doing “information scavenger hunts” through it (for prizes, mind you – yes, my team won first place).

I remember learning how to use the Funk & Wagnalls and Britannica Encyclopædias (my aunt owned the Britannica, my parents the F&W). I remember learning how to use World Book at the library.

I also remember my first semester at HVCC¬†in 1999 where we went to the school library to learn how to search for materials online for our English class – and no one knowing what search engines were … nor even how to use the catalog the school had!

I think that was my first worry about the state of education and how ill-prepared most people are out of high school to be ready to function in further schooling. And I have only seen it get worse.

There is a fundmental breakdown in the education system in the United States. Is a solution redecentralizing? Homeschooling? Montessori? Private/parochial schools? Eliminating teacher unions^? Performance pay for teachers?

I think all of those will play important roles in improving the future of the country.

Something needs to be done – because the state of education today is very bad.

For the record: my wife does know how to reference materials at least at a cursory level – but those skills weren’t learned until she had to have them in college.

* search is broken, but that’s another problem
^ specifically, abuse of power, lobbying, etc

organizational knowledge capture, retention, and dissemination

Knowledge capture, retention, and dissemination has been an interest of mine for a long time. I have written about various aspects of it before.

The most vital commodity any organization has is the knowledge of its members Рit does not matter if it is a historical society, company, church, or school: the organizational knowledge base is vital to ongoing health of the organization.

I love the picture of the “Tree of Wisdom“: at the ground there is a meadow of data, from this data information roots are gathered, the roots grow into knowledge branches, and at the end is the application of that knowledge in wisdom leaves.

Data is easy to come by.

Information similarly so.

Knowledge, taking information and transforming it into a more-usable form, is important.

When to apply that knowledge Рaka using wisdom Рis the topic for another post.

Capturing Knowledge

There are a host of available tools for capturing knowledge – text files, brown bags, PowerPoint, SharePoint, blogs, Plone, wikis, etc. The “best” one to use is the one you¬†use.


Getting team members to contribute to organizational knowledge pools can be difficult – unless it is an organizational priority .. a part of the organization’s culture.

Incorporating this culture switch (if it’s not already innate to the organization) needs to be done not¬†merely as a top-down directive, but encouraged via bottom-up interest.

Retaining (Managing) Knowledge

Now that you’ve captured (or started capturing) the organization’s data, managing it becomes the next task of import.

For example, should the KB article written 5 years ago be updated, replaced, or left alone?

Who is responsible for managing all of the information that has been collected? Will it be self-managed and -directed, will there be a curation team, will it be a combination?

Who determines the process for taking “internal” knowledge and “promoting” it to “outside” knowledge?

How are these roles going to be managed as the team changes memberships through people leaving, entering, and shifting in the organization?

For extremely small organizations, formal curation may be¬†unnecessary. Perhaps since everyone knows everyone else, or the knowledge domain is so small, everyone’s individual contributions will remain fairly static and the “promotion” path will merely be proofreading (eg a historical society’s archives – the archives may be extensive, but the material doesn’t ‘change’ all that much (excepting being added-to, of course)).

For very big organizations (like the MSDN documentation available on, many layers of curation are likely going to be needed – proofreading, formatting, verifying, etc.

Finding the right balance of self-direction and organizational management can be tricky.

Disseminating Knowledge – Getting The Word Out

All of the captured knowledge in the world is useless if you can’t find it – and knowing where to look is vital. A close second to knowing where to look is how to find it.

Where is it?

There needs to be a solid document, landing page, directory, table of contents, etc so that new members (or folks who forget) can find the tribal knowledge that exists in the organization.

As a part of the new-hire\introduction\etc process\period, be sure to tell new members where information can be found, and who to talk to about certain major topics.

Finding it once you know where to look

“Search is a hard problem.” Google’s own Udi Manber¬†said that. Anna Paterson at Stanford wrote, “Writing Your Own Search Engine Is Hard.”

Search in general may be hard, but many tools handle at least basic (and some fuzzy) searching well – OSQA, WordPress, Plone, Drupal, and many others. If, in addition to categorization, a tag taxonomy is employed, quickly¬†finding¬†content relevant to the searcher’s wants\needs can become easier.

“A tag is a keyword or label that categorizes your question with other, similar questions. Using the right tags makes it easier for others to find and answer your question.” {SO description}

Knowledge contributors should be the primary agents of tagging. However, consumers should be able to suggest additional tags. Administrators\curators should be able (under unusual, but well-defined, circumstances) to remove tags.

The human factor

For any given topic / knowledge region in the organization’s realm, there need to be established “experts” and “mentors” who will help guide new individuals through the fog to locate the buoys to be able to navigate themselves into a clearer understanding of the new world they have been made a part of.

Apprenticing upcoming experts into the organization is the single most vital aspect of the knowledge capture process – if it is not disseminated, it doesn’t matter if it is captured.

redecentralizing school

I have a very longterm interest in education.

As I look at the current public education “system” in the US, I can see a variety of major problems.

The biggest problem, endemic of any system built around the premise that the only people who should be together all day long should all be “similar”. Somewhere along the way, we decided it would be a Good Idea‚ĄĘ to split children into monocultures of more-or-less indentically-aged groups called “grades”, and then batch them into groups of 20-30 and herd them through a variety of subjects every day.

We have lost the concept of learning as exemplified throughout history in the “apprentice” or “disciple” model.

Before the monoculturification of schooling, whole (but small) groups of children were taught together – it’s how my dad’s uncle was taught. From 1st (or K) through 12th all in one room. At any given moment, all ages were either being reminded of earlier work, or hearing about later work, or doing their own work.

This model is still used by the large segment of the population that homeschools (presuming, of course, they have more than one child).

What if we re-adopted this approach to school in the public system? What if, instead of having schools which housed hundreds of students in just a couple grades, we had schools in every neighborhood that had a few dozen students that represent all the grades of the community?

What if schools became “migratory” – in the sense that as the demographics of the community change, the location of the school ‘building’ can shift. Perhaps, for example, in a suburban community the school could be usage of a development community center – but if and when the community has fewer or no children, the school locale could be removed or shifted to a new young demographic area.

Some of the myriad benefits I can envision in such a scenario:

  • reduced overhead for any given school in terms of hiring, maintenance, etc
  • reduced school board / district overhead – elimination of now-unneeded positions
  • increased teacher-to-student engagement
  • lower student-to-teacher ratios
  • increased student retention as they are continually being reminded of old concepts
  • teachers becoming more generalized, rather than [potentially] myopic in their teaching
  • team teaching – cutting across disciplines and seeing an integrated view of the world
  • improved teaching flexibility
  • reduced union strength
  • improved connections between teachers and the community they serve
  • more well-rounded graduates
  • reduced / eliminated busing
  • decreased prevalence of bullying
  • increased likelihood of teachers living near/in the communities they serve

Some of the antibenefits I could envision:

  • loss of school sporting teams
  • forced generalization of teachers
  • more complex IT support infrastructure (if managed by a central authority such as the board or district)

I eagerly anticipate your feedback – what do you think?

mastery by robert greene

In Mastery, Robert Greene continues in the style of his excellent work, The 48 Laws of Power (which I previously reviewed and have been posting excerpts from).

Sadly, it is not quite to the level of The 48 Laws – though it still a good book. Unbeknownst to me, I’ve already been practicing most of what he preaches, starting with finding your niche. Oh, and following an apprenticeship path. And staying creative; and widening your horizons.

This is also, more or less, the path modeled by one of my previous employers, the¬†Shodor Education Foundation¬†through their Apprentice, Intern, and “Post-Bac” Staff programs (they have higher than “Post-Bac” staff, too – but that’s more in¬†the “Master” level than¬†getting to it).

I was hoping for something … well, maybe not “new” – but insightful-and-not-common-elsewhere. Perhaps I’m merely well-read already, but Mr Greene comes to roughly the same conclusion as Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers – 10,000 hours of concerted effort in learning, practicing, and presenting a given topic/field will tend¬†to push you into the “Master” realm (review).

Through a series of case studies and repeated biographical highlights through the last ~300 years, the point is shown that while there are a few workable paths to¬†Mastery – they’re all traversable by anyone who cares to take the time and effort to do so.

Timothy Ferriss’ series of “4 Hour” books (4-Hour Body, 4-Hour Workweek, & 4-Hour Chef) all showcase these exact traits, as well. While presented as “shortcuts for the rest of us”, if read without skimming, instead show that it is¬†only through intense focus and hard work that you can arrive at the “4-Hour” destination.

Is Mastery a worthwhile read? Probably for most people.

Is it worth owning? Doubtful.

Grab a copy from your library (like I did) and read it. Reread it. Blog about it. Tweet it. Skim it. Then return it.

the basque history of the world by mark kurlansky

I have long been interested in the Basque people; first introduced to them nearly 13 years ago in an introduction to terrorism class (a year and a half before it was “cool”) with the separatist group ETA.

So it was with great interest I grabbed The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky off the shelf of my local library recently.

Before continuing: wow – Mark’s writing is intensely engaging, wide-sweeping, and both in-line with some of my previous knowledge of the group, and builds and extends that view in new, exciting ways.

Kurlansky has had the opportunity to live in and among the Basque people for years, and brings a great deal of insight from interviews, papers, books, histories, etc that showcase the “Basqueness” of the people in eastern France and northern Spain – aka Basqueland – in contrast to the “Spanishness” of what we think of as modern Spain (and, to a lesser extent, the “Frenchness” of France). For example, it was the Basques who trained the English in whaling, built much of the armada which was damaged so severely in 1588. Basques also largely crewed the exploratory vessels of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan (indeed, the commander who brought Magellan’s mission to a completion after his death was a Basque).

For centuries, Basques have been stereotyped as reclusive, secret-keeping, quiet people. They have been known as smugglers across the France-Spain border, rural, and a nation of people who has never had their own country. For millenia they have lived in the same region of Europe – creating some of what has been frequently credited to others in modern industry: in addition to the aforementioned whaling activities, they also contributed to new steel industry by providing ideal iron ore both to their own factories and to the British blast furnaces in the 1800s which utilized the Bessemer process.

So many anecdotes, triva points, and fascinating facts and stories of the Basque people, region, and history are wrapped in The Basque History of the World, that to do true justice would require reading the book.

Interspersed through the pages are recipes for traditional Basque foods, terms, words, and phrases; having never visited that portion of the world in person, I feel like I have gotten a true taste of the people through this book.

ghosts in the fog by samantha seiple

For much of my life I have been interested in WWII Рmy grandpa Myers was in the Navy in the Pacific theater on a mine sweeper. My dad read extensively on the war, largely because of his father, and passed along an interest in military history  Рthe navy in particular Рand intriguing stories of battles that rarely get headlines. Everyone knows about Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Guadalcanal, Midway, George Patton, Chester Nimitz, Eisenhower, The Desert Fox, etc etc.

But not many people realize that the Japanese did, in fact, attack American-owned soil beyond just Pearl Harbor: they launched balloon bombs at the Pacific Northwest, there is a large (though never completed) gun emplacement above San Francisco to guard the Golden Gate, the Japanese developed carrier subs to try to attack the Panama Canal, and there was a relatively long naval, ground, and air war around, in, and over the Aleutian Islands in Alaska – wherin the Japanese even occupied American soil for part of the war.

One weather report given during that campaign indicated that all aircraft were to be grounded because the crosswinds were near 100mph – and fog made visibility too low to takeoff, navigate, and land (fwiw, I don’t know how you get fog and 100mph winds – but it happens in the¬†Bering¬†Sea)!

Samantha Seiple’s book Ghosts in the Fog spends a little under 200 pages addressing the history of that story in a readily-accessible format (aimed dominantly at the pre-teen/teen market). Characterized by an approachable and engaging series of narratives, it well describes this second ‘forgotten war’ in American history (some would say that the Spanish-American War was the first, and that the Korean War (third on my list) was “The Forgotten War” – but this aspect of WWII is certainly not well-enough known). Covering a spectrum of intelligence, operations, and geographical data, Ms Seiple gives a solid showing in this work.

The Japanese first bombed Dutch Harbor¬†– more commonly-known in current pop culture as the base from which crabbing boats operate on Discovery’s Deadliest Catch – which surprised the theater commander who believed that cryptographic intercepts supplied to him were intentionally-false messages on the part of the Japanese trying to lure him away from their real destination. Unfortunately for Admiral Theobald, and the natives and soldiers who called that part of the world home, the intelligence provided which indicated the Japanese were aiming at Dutch Harbor was correct – and he was hundreds of miles east and south of the region when they struck.

I hope more people become aware of this ‘forgotten’ aspect of World War II, as the lives of the airmen, sailors, and soldiers who fought and died (on both sides) should be remembered.

the art of war by sun tzu

The Art of War by Sun Tzu is one of the oldest texts in the world, and the oldest known treatise on warfare. It has become de rigueur in war colleges, business schools, and other venues.

Most people have incorporated at least part of Sun Tzu’s teaching and thinking in their lives as leaders – whether they know it or not.

It is available in a variety of formats online, so I’m not adding a whole lot of ‘new’ insights, here, more just my thoughts and reactions to the text.

I first read The Art of War online several years ago – it’s an extremely quick read, but it’s very dense, too. I also have it as an audio book (read, sadly, in a near monotone) – and listening to it while driving or at work has been enlightening.

Chapter List

(see alternative headings here)
  1. Detail Assessment and Planning
  2. Waging War
  3. Strategic Attack
  4. Tactical Dispositions
  5. Strategic Military Power
  6. Weaknesses and Strengths
  7. Military Maneuvers
  8. The Nine Variations
  9. Movement and Development of Troops
  10. Situational Positioning
  11. The Nine Battlegrounds
  12. Attacking with Fire
  13. Intelligence and Espionage

Other References

Interestingly, The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene covers some of this same ground (no surprise, since his work is based on observations through history).

Today, none of the content of Sun Tzu’s efforts seems surprising: but I can only imagine how revolutionary his work must have been some 2500 years ago.