31 January 2006

Presentations: Guy Kawasaki.

Kawasaki is an author, speaker, Macintosh evangelist from back in the day, and now an outstanding blogger. He's known for giving great presentations, and now he's been addressing different aspects of presentations in a series of recent posts.

"The 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint"
"Lessons from Steve [Jobs]'s Keynote"
"How to Get a Standing Ovation"
"How to Be a Demo God"

If you give presentations, all of these are worth reading and re-reading -- and, for that matter, so is the rest of his blog, which is why I've put it in my permanent links on the right-hand side of this page.

Garr Reynolds has also ably summarized the 'Kawasaki Method' of presentation.

Commonplace: Kieschnick

"Whatever you do, just make sure you throw every pitch with conviction."
—Brooks Kieschnick

(Kieschnick was the star pitcher and slugger at the University of Texas when I was an undergraduate there. He wasn't quite good enough as either a pitcher or a hitter to stick in a full-time role in the major leagues, but he has enjoyed some success in recent years as a combination reliever/pinch-hitter. Given this quotation above, which I took from a sports feature on him some time ago, I'd say he has his head on straight, too. How many of us fail to follow this advice in our day-to-day lives?)

Innovation: Screensavers.

In my experience, interesting new ideas often spring from the juxtaposition of familiar ideas. One way that I present myself with these juxtapositions during my working day is by taking advantage of the screensaver on my dual-monitor computer setup at work. (If you've never tried two monitors -- wow, it's amazing how much more efficient it can make you.)

The free screensaver I use is called gPhotoShow. Once you install it, the program points to a folder of your choosing and rotates randomly through all the image files the folder contains. If you use two monitors, it rotates through the photos in different order on the two screens. You can change the settings to rotate through pictures faster or slower, have them appear with fancy wipes or dissolves, etc.

Whenver I come across interesting images in my Internet travels, I save them into my pictures folder. Then gPhotoShow takes care of the rest. If you end up with a nautical painting by Turner next to a nautical painting by Rembrandt, that might not fire up your innovation engine. But maybe a Lichtenstein next to a Velazquez will. I include not just paintings but photographs, commercial graphics, sports images, and anything else that I like.

Housekeeping: Comments turned on.

After a bit of wrangling, gentle readers, I have convinced Blogger to turn on the comments function throughout this blog. Please do use it -- I welcome your feedback.

Also, if anyone knows a simple way to install a page-hits counter here, your technology-challenged correspondent would appreciate the help.

30 January 2006

Prolificity: Keep your chops up.

"Keeping my chops up" has stuck in my head ever since I read this article in The New Yorker in 2004. Here's the relevant quote:
“I try to keep my chops up,” Glover told Jane Goldberg, for Dance Magazine, “so I can just be.”
That's Glover as in Savion Glover, the great tap virtuoso of our age. His point is that he works hard to keep his technique in line--then doesn't have to think about it when it comes time to perform.

This matches my experience of writing. When I'm writing every day--writing to some endpoint, not just jotting down disconnected thoughts--the words flow more easily, and the prose itself ends up at a higher quality. I'm reminded of an interview with Janet Evans that I heard when she made her debut at the Seoul Olympics. Evans said that she tended to break her coach's prohibition on swimming seven days a week, because she found that missing a day in the pool threw her off her (typhonic) rhythm when she got back in the water.

If you want to produce a lot, work to produce something all the time, not by spurts or by seasons.

"Nulla dies sine linea." -- Pliny

Decision: Jeff Bewkes.

I'm fascinated by Jeff Bewkes, the #2 guy at Time Warner who headed up the HBO hit factory in the 1990s/early 2000s. Fortune has a short feature on him near the bottom of this page.

Key excerpt relevant to the faculty of decision:
"I don't want to make somebody uncomfortable by being frank," he says. "But you're trying to find as much transparency as you can. It's an interesting combination to be as open as you can and as loose as you can, but you must make decisions as fast as possible. You keep the decisions transparent, and that allows you to correct them, because nobody figures this stuff out in one shot. My theory is iteration: You go, you talk, you act, and you check back on how did it work. You adjust course as you go, and it turns out that's the fastest way to move. So you're always moving and you're always deciding and you're always getting new information. You can actually provoke information by doing things that you can't figure out if you just sit there thinking."
Bewkes's idea of constant decisions and constant feedback meshes well with the concept of O.O.D.A.

Levels of the Game.

Roger Federer’s crushing win in the Australian Open reminds me of the best tennis book I’ve ever read, Levels of the Game. That 1969 book profiles tennis pros Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner using the lens of a big match between them at the U.S. Open. The point of the title is that tennis is a game of levels, such that duffers can’t beat good club players, good club players can’t beat their own club pro, that club pro can’t beat a low-ranked touring player, and so on. While Marcos Baghdatis showed how an inspired player can perform over his head for a week—or, who knows, even make a real shift to a new level of performance—he also showed that, as of today in the world of men’s tennis, there is the level on which Federer plays and then there are other, lower levels where everyone else plays.

I am in the business of making judgments and giving advice. As a teaching assistant, I do this in a formal way, by grading undergraduates’ papers and answering questions during office hours. With my friends and coworkers, I carry out the same function informally. Whether my advice is much good, I can’t say, but I do seem to be wired to (try to) help. So if some of my posts here sound like advice columns, I come by it honestly.

In my other roles, however, I’m often the one in need of advice. As a doctoral student, I’m on the lower rungs of the academic profession; the same is true in my business career. People compliment my writing, but I’m still in the category of Those Who Haven’t Written a Book; people say I could make a great professor someday, but I’m still in the category of Those Who Don’t Have a Ph.D. Writing a book or earning a Ph.D. aren’t the be-all and end-all of anything, but until I do them, I playing at a lower level of the game than those who have done them.

Weak undergraduates can take guidance from better undergraduates. The better undergraduates can take advice from even novice graduate students. Some novice grad students in my department take advice from me, because I want to help and because I’ve been around the block. I seek out advice from advanced graduate students and from any faculty member, no matter how junior. Junior faculty look to senior faculty for guidance. Senior faculty, even if they don’t ask for advice, still have to look up to the stars of their field. Understanding my place in this chain keeps me humble. Sometimes I have to scold an undergrad who won’t hand in work on time, or who didn’t study for the midterm; at other times, I’m the one who deserves scolding from my betters.

It is also humbling to watch someone as good as Federer perform in his own sphere. We can predict that his tennis career will be over a lot sooner than my writing career, but for now, even though he’s a decade younger than I am, he’s better at tennis than I’ve ever been at anything. The point isn’t to berate myself for being “behind,” but rather to use high performers like Federer or the stars in my own fields as inspiration to do better today and tomorrow than I did yesterday and the day before. (See, now I’m giving myself advice. I spread it around liberally.) If I can mimic Federer’s “uncanny ability to block out distractions,” so much the better.

Any competitive field will have levels to its game. If we have our heads on straight, we can regard these levels not as barriers to upward progress, but as goals to be pursued. Even with all his success, Federer is only halfway to the total of Grand Slams won by Pete Sampras, and beyond that there are still other levels to be attained. Upon reaching the top of the field, there is the challenge of staying there -- and then there is the greater challenge of competing with the legacy of the best of all time.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and I'm a long way from being called the Rod Laver of anything. So if you'll excuse me, I need to go work on my game.

29 January 2006

Presentations: At all costs, never be dull.

There is no excuse for a dull presentation. This is true despite the prevalent use of PowerPoint in corporate and academic settings, and despite the inherent flaws in the cognitive style of PowerPoint. Here are some examples of what a good PowerPoint presentation can be.

--Lawrence Lessig on copyright. (Augmented by this interview with Cliff Atkinson.)
--Dick Hardt on secure identity software.
--A summary on Masayoshi Takahashi's compelling presentation method.
--A summary of Tom Peters on "Presentation Excellence".

As the last two references will suggest, Garr Reynolds's blog is excellent for those in the business of making presentations. Cliff Atkinson also has a helpful Web site on presentations, and his accompanying book is useful.

When in doubt: Read more Tufte.

Commonplace: Chesterfield

“I recommend you to take care of the minutes: for hours will take care of themselves.”

Categories of One

Several of the people I’ve mentioned here belong in what I call “categories of one”: there is only one Richard Branson for example, and only one David Bowie—to pick two Englishmen of the same generation. It’s not merely that these men have not been successfully copied; they can not be copied. John Creasey, John Darnielle, Mike Leach, and John Boyd—each of them is, in some key way, uncopyable.

Actually, you could say that this commonality does puts them into one collective category. The point is that each of these people have the same basis for being amazing: differentation. It is a fundamental principle of entrepreneurship, and it leads to the most interesting careers.

Everyone talks about being “unique,” and surely each of us is unique in terms of our fingerprints, our ineffable experience of life, and so on. But the truth is that most people are not functionally unique. In fact, they’re quite easy to categorize: “salesman who’s into sports and his family”; “sad sack who can’t get a date despite his obvious attractive qualities”; “status-conscious SuperMom”; “silverback executive who insists on deference from others”; “mopy grad student”; “good-time girl”; or what have you. It’s not that these people lack the basis for doing some unique and individual, but that they do not, in practice, seize upon (or make) their opportunities to do so. The roots of this are probably various, but for many people it comes down to fear and discomfort when setting out on their own; it remains, for most people, much more comfortable to pursue the tried-and-true.

Most people pursue their careers this way, which helps to explain why so many people find their work boring and the progression of their careers so unsatisfying. The category-of-one folks, though, are pulled too strongly by their own unique vision, or their thirst to work out their internal tensions, to settle for less than an idiosyncratic path through their life and work. Mike Leach warmed the bench on his high school football team and took a highly unusual path to being a collegiate head coach. His greatest qualification for holding his job is an obsessive internal genius for the workings of football offense. Likewise, fighter pilots typically don’t promulgate important theories of military doctrine with profound applications for business strategies; that’s why John Boyd was John Boyd.

Lately I’ve seen a couple of interesting quotations in this vein. The first one, which I cannot find verbatim, is from Shaquille, who said, in essence, that you don’t want to work merely to be the best at what you do; rather, you want to carve out a spot for yourself so that you’re the only one who does what you do. He was, in other words, essentially paraphrasing Jerry Garcia, who said, “You do not merely want to be the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.” A good description of the Grateful Dead, to be sure.

This concept—being the only one who does what you do—has featured prominently in the systematic research done by Jim Collins. In his book Good to Great (which really does deserve its hype and monster sales), he puts forward what he calls the Hedgehog Concept. It is named after the distinction drawn by Isaiah Berlin in his famous essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” In this extended metaphor, the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. As he explains on his Web site, Collins believes that each company must identify that thing which it and it alone can do better than any other company in the world. All of the companies that made the transition from good to great in Collins’s study shared this trait, despite coming from a range of industries.

Shaquille and Jerry and Jim are all saying the same thing, which makes sense because what is true for great companies is also true for great rock bands and for outstanding individual performers, in sports or elsewhere. But again, we’re not taught to think of our lives this way. We are taught, by and large, to minimize our risks—the risk of bankruptcy, the risk of being unemployable, the risk of being too different for the audience to grasp. At some level, this is pragmatic as a lowest-common-denominator strategy, since many people do lack the talent or the mindset to pursue this course—they actually are better off sticking with the tried-and-true.

But does this apply to most people? And more to the point, does it apply to you? I doubt it. Most people, if they will try, can carve out a niche for themselves, even if they only ever become “famous” within the confines of their own company, their own department, their own church, or whatever. Moreover, I believe that most people want this; they want to be known for some little thing, at least, that sets them apart from the mainstream, even if only in the safest of psychological contexts.

One of my favorite category-of-one types, someone I have taken as an inspiration, is Keith Ferrazzi. The short version of Ferrazzi’s career is that he’s the son of a working-class family who used his chutzpah, smarts, and hard work to become one of the greatest connectors in the business world. I could tell you more about him, but I would only be cribbing from this terrific Tahl Raz article in Inc. magazine. Raz went on to collaborate with Ferrazzi on a book, Never Eat Alone. The book is well worth your time if you want to mark the business world with your own imprint—an imprint arising from your own personality and unique qualities. (If you want to read more, Ferrazzi also keeps a blog and writes columns.)

Ferrazzi understands that people get ahead in business not by being like everybody else, but by being themselves, by channeling their own uncopyable attributes into creating value for others. In my experiences, this applies just as well in academics as in private enterprise. We see it in the meteoric rise of one-of-a-kind scholars like Niall Ferguson, who use their talents, hard work, and uncopyable perspectives to win success at the same time that so many would-be scholars meander through graduate school, do all of their work in the vein of others who have gone before them, and then face the brutal academic job market with little more than bewilderment.

Your career is like a business—in fact, it is the business you carry out in the world—so why would the same rules that apply to Jim Collins’s great companies not apply to you? And why wouldn’t the same commitment to uniqueness that animated the Grateful Dead apply to you? It comes back to differentation: you do have a unique set of attributes, for better (if you’re smart about using them) or for worse (if you let your weaknesses hold you back). Do what I try every day to do: Find your own personal Hedgehog Concept. Commit yourself to following it, then reap the rewards from being yourself. If nothing else, your life will stand the chance of being as interesting as Shaquille O’Neal’s, Keith Ferrazzi’s, or Jerry Garcia’s. It's a chance well worth taking.

28 January 2006

Decision: Outlook versus technique.

Human ingenuity, especially in the contexts of military and management science, has derived many techniques to augment common sense in making sound decisions. As an example, this site introduces several well-established approaches, including Pareto analysis, cost-benefit analysis, and decision trees.

It's true enough that anything can be hard when you don't know how to do it. But think it over: in your experience, do more people run aground for not knowing paired comparison analysis, or for lacking the outlook that they must take decisions in matters that are important to them?

I like that term--taking a decision. To me, it aptly conveys the quality of the action required. In my experience, good decision-makers are thouse who actively take decisions as they are confronted with them. We all decide constantly, even if most of the time we are deciding to go to work or eat lunch or otherwise follow exactly the same habits we displayed yesterday. The best decision-makers, I suspect, differ from the rest of us because they take more responsibility for these decisions, moment by moment and day by day. It may have less to do with the quality of the decisions themselves, since all of us will have our blunders, and more to do with the emotional or psychological mindset that girds a person to take matters in hand.

Many top performers feel fear just like the rest of us, but--unlike us ordinary or low performers--they opt to decide anyway. They understand that their decisions may not work out. Failure will come. With it will come more opportunities to decide anew between all the competing options that present themselves to the human animal every day. The best decision-makers--who among the world's truly effective people--know that this is nothing to fear.

Research: Let's wrap it up.

Right now I am in the midst of researching for a scholarly paper--what I hope will be my first refereed publication. My work is hampered by my bad habit of shuffling back and forth through documents again and again. I open a new box of documents with firm resolve to work right through it, to find and read the relevant materials out of several boxes in one long afternoon of work. In the event, it almost never works this way. I dither. I skim some things that I know I should come back to, then write down long quotations from material that may or may not make its way into the completed project. Then I waste more time wondering whether I'm doing a good job with the material, wondering why my methods are inconsistent, and so on. All too often, I end up having to go through a box two or three times--or even more--just to cover the terrain.

This is the equivalent of having the same thoughts over and over. Surely you do this, too: think and think and think again about something that you either cannot control or that you could control, yet curiously decline to act upon. The organizational expert David Allen has written that you should not handle papers again and again, because the practice is inherently a waste of time. He says that likewise you should not handle the same thought over and over, unless it's a thought you really like and want to have over and over. Yet many of us--myself among the worst--fall into this unfruitful pattern by force of habit.

In the archive, changing perspectives can be fruitful. Maybe you skim through a box quickly to get familiar with its contents, then go back through it in detail, looking only at the documents you spotted as important the first time around. This process often uncovers interesting connections between disparate material, and it allows you to skim quickly past documents that don't tell you anything novel or compelling.

Without method, though, this switching of perspective is fruitless, or at best highly frustrating. Sad to say, this fits into a larger pattern in my life of starting projects with one method or tempo or perspective, then randomly switching to another method, tempo, or perspective at whim. No doubt this is a key reason why so many of my projects take so long to complete: as I get an idea of where I'm headed, I change lanes, change vehicles, or change highways altogether.

Archival work is most valuable when you form tentative conclusions as you go. You do so with the understanding that your provisional understanding will change, but that some sort of interim verdict--a working hypothesis--feeds the Siamese-twin processes of comprehension and composition.

I cannot comment on the research that goes on in laboratories, and I'm sure that social scientists will cringe at my inadequately theorized approach here. But for those working in the humanities or writing essays, I say from hard experience--including the part of my time that I wasted this afternoon--that you must compose as you go. Learn enough ahead of time to get a rough outline in place, then head to the archive with the firm purpose that you will write this paper at the archive, while confronting the documents. (A laptop is the magic weapon in this fight.) Nothing prevents you, later on, from coming back to the same material again--but for some other project in some other context. Meanwhile, my fellow ditherers, get the project at hand D-O-N-E.

In his estimable book Hackers & Painters, Paul Graham asserts that ideas must be implemented rather sitting on a shelf. When they sit on the shelf, they taunt you. When you go ahead and implement them, you (1) get real feedback from the real world on how well your ideas work; (2) clear the way for the other ideas that can only come to fruition once the first one is implemented; and (3) gain the valuable experience--somewhere between an athlete grooving a new stroke and a manual laborer developing protective calluses--in the hard business of implementation.

It frustrates me that I am encountering these research problems now. I'm 33 years old and in my fourth year (cumulatively) of graduate study. You would think that I would have this down by now. But today reminded me that, however far along I may be in life, I am still an apprentice scholar. Anyway, it's better to address these problems now than when I am two years into dissertation work.

Now if you'll pardon me, I have to go write up today's research.

Prolificity: John Creasey

I've never read his work--I'm not much for mysteries these days--yet I remain fascinated by the career of John Creasey, who toiled through more than 700 rejection slips in his early years to become one of the most prolific writers in history. During his long career, he published 562 books under his own name and several pseudonyms.

Far from undermining the quality of his work, Creasey's prolificity aided his development as a writer, so that his oeuvre was eventually compared to Balzac's Comedie Humaine.

On this page, Keith Miles offers a quick introduction to Creasey's work.
How did he get started?

In a blizzard of over seven hundred rejection slips.

How did he achieve so enormous an output?

By producing 10.000 words a day, a book a week, not stopping for time-wasting research, - "Write first then research"- and relying on devoted editors to supply corrections for two rewrites...

This site offers more detail, including individual pages for several of Creasey's long-running series of novels.

O.O.D.A.: Mike Leach

A few weeks ago Michael Lewis had a crackerjack article in the New York Times Magazine about Mike Leach, the head football coach of Texas Tech University.

I grew up in West Texas, where football is all but the official religion, and attended one of the best football high schools in the country, so I can appreciate what a radical cultural departure it is for Leach to minimize the inside running game in favor of a sophisticated, free-flowing, and innovative passing attack.

It strikes me that Leach employs the advantages of high tempo that Col. Boyd preached in his OODA gospel. Lewis quotes part of a Leach pre-game speech to his players, when he told them to "play together with great tempo." Lewis goes on:
He had been harping on tempo all week: he thinks the team that wins is the team that moves fastest, and the team that moves fastest is the team that wants to. He believes that both failure and success slow players down, unless they will themselves not to slow down. "When they fail, they become frustrated," he says. "When they have success, they want to become the thinking-man's football team. They start having these quilting bees, these little bridge parties at the line of scrimmage."
This matches my own experience of business and of life. In school, you get to the end of a semester, right after a period of huge (forced) productivity to finish papers and exams . . . and then you take such a big fat breather over the holidays that you can barely get re-started when the next semester rolls around. A department of a company will work like dogs to hit quarterly or annual targets . . . then have all the wind go out of their sales on January 3.

This is not to say that we can't move at different speeds at different times; indeed, probably we should to keep ourselves fresh. But when we decide to, as Leach points out, we can keep up a tempo that gives us advantages over our challenges, whether those come in the form of business competitors, personal deadlines, career advancement, or what have you.

My renewed commitment for myself as I "play" the game of life: play with great tempo.

Richard Hamming on doing important work.

One of the most unsettling things I’ve read in a long time is computer scientist Richard Hamming’s lecture, “You and Your Research,” which is posted at Paul Graham’s excellent site. It is so unsettling because of the way that Hamming emphasizes the need for scientists to concentrate on doing breakthrough work.

Hamming tells the story of looking for a new table to join in the Bell Labs lunchroom after several of his friends left the physics table:
Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, "Do you mind if I join you?'' They can't say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, "What are the important problems of your field?'' And after a week or so, "What important problems are you working on?'' And after some more time I came in one day and said, "If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?'' I wasn't welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring.

In the fall, Dave McCall stopped me in the hall and said, "Hamming, that remark of yours got underneath my skin. I thought about it all summer, i.e. what were the important problems in my field. I haven't changed my research,'' he says, "but I think it was well worthwhile.'' And I said, "Thank you Dave,'' and went on. I noticed a couple of months later he was made the head of the department. I noticed the other day he was a Member of the National Academy of Engineering. I noticed he has succeeded. I have never heard the names of any of the other fellows at that table mentioned in science and scientific circles. They were unable to ask themselves, "What are the important problems in my field?''

If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work. It's perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them.
This sets the bar high--where it should be. Of course, setting the bar high reveals that our typical efforts (read: my usual daily S.O.P.) are inadequate.

One of the best devices I've heard of--and which I occasionally force myself to use--is the "obituary test" for your current actions and projects. It's a simple test: Assume that some day you merit a big obituary in The New York Times or the like. Would this activity in question make it into that obituary? If not, why are you doing it?

Seth Godin has a similar idea: "What's going to be on your tombstone?"

My ideal epitaph: "Wow!"

Commonplace: Dale Carnegie

"Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy."
--Dale Carnegie

(Too many people these days view the world of Dale Carnegie ironically, as though How to Win Friends and Influence People were the irrelevant product of a bygone world. Very little in that book will surprise you, but it is all just as true today as when he wrote it decades ago.)

Creator: John Lasseter

My friend Z. suggests that John Lasseter is the crux of the recently announced acquisition of Pixar by Disney. Lasseter is likely the most important animator in the world: he has been animating his ideas for nearly 30 years, and he was the driving force behind the Toy Story films, A Bug's Life, and many more from Pixar. (He's also famous for always wearing crazy floral-print shirts.)

Some links to material about Lasseter:
--His corporate biography at Pixar.
--A feature on him from Animation World Magazine, 1998.
--From the Guardian, a long on-stage interview from a film festival in 2001.

My favorite quote -- from Lasseter's high school days, after he read a book on animation: "I realized that people make cartoons for a living. It had never dawned on me that you could do this as a career." This is so often the case with great creators who go on to great careers: they do what they love doing, what they can't imagine not doing, and then figure out that they can make a living at it.

If Lasseter's creative vision prevails as Pixar joins Disney, we may see a rebirth of Disney in the spirit of Walt Disney himself.

27 January 2006

Commonplace: Jong

"Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads."
--Erica Jong

O.O.D.A.: Introduction

I've become fascinated with the decision-making matrix that goes under the heading of "O.O.D.A" -- short for "Observe, Orient, Decide, Act". This was formulated by a famous fighter pilot and military thinker, Col. John Boyd, who derived an entire approach to conflict based on continuous feedback. A good graphical example of his OODA schematic is here.

The short version of OODA is that it allows you to get inside the heads of adversaries, unsettle their worldview (by disrupting their schemes for observation, orientation, decision making, and action), and come out on top. Boyd developed his ideas in part by dogfighting: he had a standing bet that he could start with any other fighter pilot on his tail and, within forty seconds, be on that pilot's tail. He never lost the bet. (This earned him the nickname "Forty Second" Boyd.)

There have been roughly a bajillion applications of Boyd's work to the business world, some of which I'll be posting here. For now, here's a link to "Boyd and Military Strategy", which itself points to more of Boyd's work (most of which I haven't even read yet).

My own interest in OODA is not so adversarial; what fascinates me most about it are two things: (1) its application to decision-making at a personal level, and (2) its emphasis on tempo in your actions. Boyd held that if you can increase the tempo by which you work through the OODA loop, you will always have an advantage over those competing against you. This idea, which traces its roots right back to Sun Tzu, is one that is far too often overlooked in business and in personal life: if you work a little more, a little better, a little more sprightly day by day, you'll come out miles ahead.

(Now that I think about it, this last idea meshes well with -- it could even be derived from -- Richard Hamming's amazing, mind-blowing "You and Your Research", about which I'll write more later.)

26 January 2006


The City of Lights in a beautiful panorama.

Prolificity: John Darnielle

John Darnielle is the name of the musician who is, by himself, the band The Mountain Goats. He plays folk-style music, but with his own special imprint that takes it a long way from folk. If you've ever heard him play, you'll never forget his highly articulated, nasal voice -- not to mention his sad, affecting lyrics.

One of my fascinations in life is prolificity, that enviable trait shared by the few who outproduce all the rest of us by miles and miles. Darnielle is one of these people: he has released more than 500 songs, but even that number is low in comparison to all the songs he's written. Many, many of his songs were recorded on a store-bought boom box, although he has begun to cut studio albums in the past few years.

I'm no critic, so I won't go on about his music, but rather point out to these articles on it.

Salon, 2003.
Kickstand, 1997.
The Village Broadsheet, 2004.
The Daily Kirk (blog), 2005. (Nice appreciation piece from a real fan.)
Dusted magazine, 2005. (Review of The Sunset Tree.)
The Believer, 2004. (Interview by Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket.)
Newcity Chicago, 2005. This piece includes an interesting take on Darnielle's prolific output:
Often described as "prolific"--a term that makes Darnielle cringe--the sheer volume of recorded work he releases increases the possibility of misfire, which makes The Mountain Goats that much more impressive given its consistent catalogue. At this point, it would feel strange if Darnielle began releasing records every three or four years, instead of annually. "The difference between me and those other artists is that they are lazy. It isn't asking much of a guy to write, say, one song a month. If you're only doing one a month, then you should be able to do twelve terrific songs per year. If you have any work ethic, it should be more than that, especially if you've been doing it for a while. I've been on this job for a minute now and I don't think it makes me `prolific' to be able to do it quickly without getting all languid-artist-dude about it."
Too many creative people -- yours truly included -- lack this helpful way of thinking. Without even having gone through the crap Darnielle has in his life (he was abused by his stepfather), many would-be creators focus on how hard it all is and how long great art takes. Bogus.

Here's the site for The Mountain Goats, and a super fan-site with discography, etc.

"Create, artist! Do not talk!" -- Goethe

22 January 2006

Jenny Holzer

Probably I had seen some of her work before, but a buddy turned me on to the "truisms" of Jenny Holzer. She has made art around such apothegms as "MONEY CREATES TASTE" and "YOU ARE A VICTIM OF THE RULES YOU LIVE BY".

So, here's a few links related to her work:

--An installation at the Guggenheim.
--A listing of her truisms.
--A 1994 interview from Wired.

Tremendous charts.

By Karl Hartig, master of the form. Click here.

Tufte would be proud, I think.

15 January 2006

Commonplace: Selye

"A long, healthy, and happy life is the result of making contributions, of having meaningful projects that are personally exciting and contribute to and bless the lives of others."
--Hans Selye

Commonplace: Sybil Marshall

"Education must have an end in view, for it is not an end in itself."
--Sybil Marshall

Commonplace: Dulles

"The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it's the same problem you had last year."
--John Foster Dulles