Category Archives: geekery

A Writing November

Cartoon of open newspaper with "Correction" advertisement: "The Downing St memo seems to be at odds with pretty much anything you remember seeing and hearing in the media in the runup to the Iraq war.  Your memory is in error. We regret your mistake."

(c) Tom Toles (2005) | “The First Draft of the Rewrite of History”

I’ve decided to participate in this year’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo 2013), and will be using the 50,000 word-challenge to reboot my research on the British executive branch’s structure, values, personnel, and communications during the 18 months before the UK- and US invaded Iraq.*

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the March 2003 invasion and the 8th year since I began to study how the Blair administration rendered Saddam Hussein’s Iraq “non-compliant” with international protocols on weapons of mass destruction and an “imminent” threat to the UK national interest.

I’ve already written and presented about this case for other communication academics (Popular Culture Association, 2008; Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 2009), and I’ve also written a 150-page doctoral study about it with a bibliography nearly 25 pages long. I may write for these readers again in the future, but not next month.

November is about writing about the British executive branch, weapons of mass destruction, secrecy, freedom of information, and civil servants, not for other academics and not as part of a degree program, but for members of the public: people like you who are savvy and curious, who don’t necessarily know a lot about the details of this case, and who care about good governance and want to read high-quality, engaging content about it.

I’m not going to write and revise next  month, though; I’m just going to write. By the end of the month, I’ll know whether I have it in me to turn this year-old baby into a book in 2014.

My goals for November are simple enough, and I’m declaring them here to increase the risk:

  1. Write ~2,000 words six days each week for 30 days, or a minimum of 1,670 words daily.
  2. Focus on generating these 50,000-50,100 words, rather than fretting about whether they are good words.
  3. Remember how much I love this project and wonder why it’s taken me so long post-graduation to return to it.

If you’d like to track my progress through November, there’ll be a word count widget in the right column of my homepage. And if you have a fiction or non-fiction book in you too, then you still have a day to sign up! As of tonight, nearly 190,000 other writers are waiting for you.

Expect an update on this from me in a few weeks.


* This intention marks me as a NaNo Rebel. Good luck to all the novelists too!

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The Overview Effect

One planet, one destiny.

OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson often speaks about the cosmic perspective that results from the study of space.

The astronauts in Overview share their experience with “the overview effect,” a way of thinking about the Earth and our place in space that acknowledges our essential oneness and the adaptive interrelationships that are part of our biosphere.

The documentary is 19 minutes long and starts with a provocative quote from British astronomer and science fiction writer Fred Hoyle. In 1948, Hoyle wrote: “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available… a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”

He was right. Humans from various nations have traveled beyond the atmosphere and seen Earth “hanging in space.” Their photos and stories have forever changed our sense of our planet—and our responsibilities here on the surface.

On Understanding

Convenience of conceptual analogies is no substitute for usefulness or rigour. —R. Brennan & S. Henneberg

One understands a phenomenon only when one has a holistic view of [it], a view that integrates all of its known components and all of its known manifestations. —T. Bouldin & L. Odell

Image of atom | via Citra's Chemistry

Image of atom | via Citra’s Chemistry

Pulling a mechanical thing apart to see how it works is easy. Observing a living system in progress is not. Humans have predictable biological components, but we are more than the sum of parts and so are the living systems we create. We can miss worlds by only examining predictable bio-molecules and chemical interactions for insights into the world around us. 

One of the programs that I work with teaches students and educators how to recognize and navigate ten levels of reality:

  1. the bio-atom
  2. the bio-molecule
  3. the cell
  4. the organ
  5. the organism
  6. the family
  7. the neighborhood
  8. the profession
  9. the nation
  10. Earth

Each level has fixed laws, and at increasing levels there’s both increasing complexity and increasing fluidity. Earth: What people think I am (covered in flags); What I really am (no borders)
Research that fails to account for anything other than linear laws won’t adequately represent reality beyond level 4. Humans (Level 5) are not reducible to biochemicals, and neither are their cultural networks or systems.

What people think is real also becomes “real” by mutual consent, because our consciousness gives us the capacity to build rules and structures on delusions as well as on sound premises. So a study of What’s Really Going On has to include the individual and community mental maps we generate in our relationships, with families, neighborhoods, professions, nations, and as a species.

If you were to design a study of people’s mental maps, what would you be looking for? What would you ignore? What would you compare? How would you assess what you noticed?

Technology and Hope

This week I met with three engineers based at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration‘s Goddard Center. I’m always made more hopeful by young professionals who love their work, care about the neighborhood beyond their office gate, and are open to sharing with local children the kind of inspiration that motivated each of them to step onto the research paths that they’re on.

Are We Smarter than the Dinosaurs?

Two dinosaurs lounging. The one on the right: "All I'm saying is _now_ is the time to develop technology to deflect an asteroid."

(c) Frank Cotham, New Yorker | via B612 Foundation

One of these engineers introduced me to the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The mission is to corral an asteroid, bring it into the Moon’s orbit, and start studying it by 2025. Because of the distances involved, astronauts will need to leave Earth by about 2019.

This week, NASA invited other STEM institutes and members of the public to join in the grand challenge of identifying and monitoring asteroid threats to Earth. The more we know about asteroids near us, the more we can track them; the more we track them, the more we can assess risk and plan for redirection and mitigation.

As the B612 Foundation‘s Ed Lu writes: “Asteroid impacts are the only global scale natural disaster we know how to prevent.” Successful work on the ARM program will move us forward—and when there is an inbound asteroid on an Earth-collision course, we will know what to do with it.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson described the stakes back in March on the Daily Show: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3.

From the Archives

Also check out this news report from 1981: When the network news discovered the internet. For extra points: note the rotary phone and plug-in modem!

“Imagine, if you will, sitting down to your morning coffee, turning on your ‘home computer’ to read the day’s newspaper. Well it’s not as far-fetched as it may seem.”

Now imagine, if you will, how many assumptions you hold today that will soon prove false, and all the things you have no concept of now but will radically change the world you live in in the next 30 years.

Scary? Exciting? I’m excited.


HT: Jeanette Brantley for the B612 Foundation links.

Encyclopedias and a Networked Universe

A few weeks ago over breakfast a friend of mine asked me how it was that I saw the world the way I do: what was it that taught me to see the world in a connected way? I’d never been asked that before and didn’t know what to tell him. Eventually, however, I realized that I became attuned to relationship in part through early exposure to encyclopedias.

Ángel Franco/The New York Times

(c) Ángel Franco/The New York Times

My mother sold encyclopedias during my school-age years, first the World Book series and later Encyclopædia Britannica. These were old-world leather-bound heavy heirloom sets that one displayed in one’s living room and passed down to one’s descendents. I loved that I could read articles on any topic whenever I wished. What I loved even more were the notes at the end of each article: See also and References. These sections connected me with new things to learn, and they challenged or validated what I’d already read. So I grew up immersed in the physical experience of leafing through these books. More importantly, I became acclimated to their logic.

The encyclopedia’s organizing logic is that data can be compiled; and, once compiled, information items can be related. Readers’ knowledge emerges as they link information in ways that make sense, that honor the integrity of each piece of information, and that help them to build a more expansive picture of the world around them and understand it more comprehensively.

The internet we have today amplifies the physical experiences I had with encyclopedias as a child. On the internet, information is networked via hypertext, links, and content tags. Generations of children who won’t grow up with huge physical sets of encyclopedias will grow up instead with this ethereal network as part of their daily, ordinary experience. There are millions around the world who haven’t yet experienced or the logic of symbolic relationships that the internet helps us adjust to: the digital divide is still a thing. But in time many of them will experience the Net, and on mobile phones rather than computers.

I think these technologies are just the latest tool Earth has evolved to help us learn how to see and build relationships among insights, ideas, communities, and people. What have you noticed in your own life? Have internet tools like Google Search, Bing, or Wikipedia changed how you engage and frame symbols, ideas, and experiences? If so, how? Have you ever thought about how two apparently disparate things might be connected? Like “milk” and “Margaret Thatcher”? Or “dragonfly” and “rocking chair”? What are the real-world See Also or Reference items that you rely on as touchstones to challenge or validate the new things you learn each day?

In your life before the internet, what systems for learning and connecting symbols, ideas, and experiences did you (and/or your community) have and use? In this post I emphasized an individual symbolic experience—but as social creatures we shape symbols and create meanings in community with others, not only by ourselves.

If you started a practice of looking for connections among two or three things each day for the next week, what new thoughts might you think? What might you discover?

Amazing interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on Bullseye with Jesse Thorn.

As well as framing NASA as the muse for our dreams and ambitions, Tyson talks about being in school and having teachers steer him away from physics toward athletics. I’m glad he persisted with physics despite his social network’s “implicit resistance” to his interests and drive. How can we encourage others to persist, and also change our culture so that we’re no longer hindering young innovators whatever disciplines they’re drawn to?

One of my favorite parts of the interview from about halfway through (14:45), on the Rubik’s Cube as a metaphor for life learning:

You could buy a book and solve [the Rubik’s Cube] rather quickly. But then you didn’t figure it out, see? So you can boast that you can solve the Rubik’s Cube for having read the book, but you won’t get to boast that you figured out how to solve it…

No matter how insurmountable a task is—if you solve it—you are in a new place intellectually and emotionally in your life. And you solve it on your own capacity to deduce steps that would lead to an answer. So much of life is shortcutted [sic] because people simply want the answer rather than embrace the solution paths that would get them there. And the richness of life, the joy of life, comes from knowing and having figured out how to do things and how to know things. That’s where you rise up over the rest of the world that simply memorizes facts. —Neil deGrasse Tyson

So awesome. Check out the rest of the interview.