Different is the new normal (a mathematical view)


Back in April I wrote a post titled Different is the new normal. In that article I looked at “normal” and “different” in the cultural sense; this is the primary context in which most people put this discussion. It occurred to me a week or so ago, though, that it would be interesting to see what this would look like from a mathematical perspective.

The first thing I think of when I hear “normal” is the normal distribution curve. So I thought, what if we put normal in the middle, and different on the ends to represent the current (and hopefully fading) view. And then, to represent different as the new normal, switch it up and put different in the middle and normal on the ends. So I started sketching out the diagrams to the right.

I played around with it a bit, mostly trying to figure out how to label the diagram. Using “normal” and “different” just didn’t seem right. I really like Seth Godin’s description of today’s normal as “factory work”, so I adopted that as “normal”. To split it into the ends, it made sense (to me, anyway) to label them as “blue collar” and “white collar”. Factory work is factory work, after all.

Labeling “different” was a bit more of a challenge. Though I like Seth’s idea of linchpins, it just didn’t seem to fit in this context. I did know that I wanted to use “artist”, as Seth describes them, as one end of different. Then I read Hacking Work and “hacker” became the obvious choice for the other end of different. But I was still stuck on how to describe “different”. Until, that is, I read The Art of Non-Conformity today.

Then it was obvious.

The 11th hour of the 11th day

While today is Veterans Day here in the US, a day to honor all of our military veterans, much of the rest of the Western world today is observing Armistice Day,  which marks the cessation of hostilities on the “western” front of World War I . This “Great War” is all but gone from living memory; according to wikipedia (as of 11 Nov 10), there are only 3 living veterans of World War I.

I have to admit that until a couple of years ago, I didn’t really know that much about WWI. Sure, I knew about trench warfare, mustard gas, the first tanks, etc. But I hadn’t really paid too much attention to the global politics that led up to – and followed – the war. It wasn’t until my sons took their Modern World History course in high school that I really started paying attention.

In the summer of 2008, after my youngest had just completed world history, we spent our family vacation in Kansas City. (That was the location of the USA Gymnastics Junior Olympic Trampoline and Tumbling National Championships that year, and we used our down time to explore.) While there we learned that the National World War I museum is in KC, so we took some time to visit.

What an incredible place. The exhibits are an amazing combination of artifacts and facts. Huge posters explaining the crazy politics that led up to the war, the conduct of the war itself, and the aftermath. Huge, life-size dioramas of trenches and other aspects of a soldier’s life. It took everything I – we – had learned as we discussed WWI during the school year and made it visceral, almost real.

If you ever find yourself in Kansas City, please set aside a morning or afternoon and visit the Liberty Memorial and World War I museum. You will be glad you did.

photo by Brent Flanders, licensed under Creative Commons. Check out Brent’s World War I Museum set on Flickr for more great photos from the museum. Thanks, Brent.

On the path of knowledge creation

ThiagiIn his foreword to Marc Prensky‘s book Digital Game-Based Learning, Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan (@thiagi) recounts the following (emphasis is mine):

Early in my life, my mentor explained to me the three paths that lead to the creation of knowledge. The analytical path, where philosophers reflect, meditate, and make sense of objects and events; the empirical path, where scientists manipulate variables and conduct controlled experiments to validate reliable principles; and the pragmatic path where practitioners struggle with real-world challenges and come up with strategies for effective and efficient performance.

Each of these paths can be taken in isolation from the others, we see that every day. It is also common to see these paths taken one after the other: analyze -> experiment -> implement.

More challenging, and much more powerful, is to integrate these three trails into a single path that allows you to go from trail to trail as needed to get you where you want to go.

Of course it’s about money

Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, programming from the Scripps Network – which includes channels such as Food Network and HGTV – disappeared from the AT&T U-verse lineup last Friday. This surprised just about everyone, since media reports earlier in the week seemed to indicate the two were working amicably toward a resolution of ongoing negotiations. Not so unexpectedly, both Scripps and AT&T very quickly released statements defending their actions and soundly blaming the other for the problems.

AT&T came out of the gate swinging, with the title of their press release, AT&T U-verse TV Customers Denied Fair Deal by Scripps Networks, giving a pretty good idea of their view on the issue. Scripps, on the other hand, came out with AT&T U-verse customers: This is not about money!, letting viewers know that Scripps was only interested in the viewers while implying that all AT&T cared about was money. Of course, both of these companies care about money – they are in business to make money, after all. They just look at it from two different perspectives.

AT&T wants to minimize the amount of money they have to pay to Scripps (or any provider) for programming while maximizing the way they can make money from that content. In this case that means paying once for content, and then being able to distribute the content on as many media and in as many ways as possible and charging their customers for the ability to access the content on all those media. When AT&T says, “With such an uneven playing field, they are harming AT&T’s ability to provide customers with a new video choice”, what they mean is, “With such an uneven playing field, they are harming AT&T’s ability to provide customers with a new video choice and make money doing it.”

On the other hand, Scripps (or any provider) wants to be paid as much money as possible for their content. In today’s media environment that means getting paid not for the content itself but for the rights to distribute that content, with each different possible medium (TV, web, mobile, etc) being another possible revenue stream. So when Jeffrey at HGTV says, “Accepting their demands would have restrained our ability to deliver our programs to viewers like you in new and innovative ways”, what he really means is, “Accepting their demands would have restrained our ability to deliver our programs to viewers like you in new and profitable ways.”

These two companies are not fighting over the best ways of providing programming to viewers, they are fighting over which one of them will get the most money out of these new delivery methods. We, the viewers, will pay for the programming one way or another, it doesn’t really matter who the money goes to. Do these companies really think that we believe they are acting out of some altruistic, self-sacrificing urge to make us happy?

Of course it’s about money. What’s wrong with that?

Be excellent to each other (thoughts on Ubuntu!)

I had been reading up on Ubuntu (the operating system) when I came across ubuntu!: An Inspiring Story About an African Tradition of Teamwork and Collaboration (the book) at the library. It was obvious from the subtitle that this was not a book about the OS, but the title pulled me in to at least take a look.

At first I thought it was a true story, perhaps an extended case study, since it was in the new non-fiction section. It turns out, though, that it is actually a work of didactic fiction, a story created by the authors to make a point. That point being that at work we all seem to forget that our co-workers are human, that they aren’t just there as “cogs in the machine”, and that we all need to start respecting our fellow workers as people, even if the work they perform isn’t (yet) worthy of our respect.

Or as those two great philosophers Bill Preston and Ted Logan once said, “Be excellent to each other.”

This point is made through the application of the African tradition known as ubuntu, brought to (stereo)typical big box corporate America by a young South African man working at the company while an MBA student at a local university. The short definition of ubuntu is

a philosophy that considers the success of the group above that of the individual

Here is a more detailed description, as given by Simon (the young South African student) early on to John, his overly stressed and on the verge of failing manager:

Ubuntu…is about teamwork and brotherhood. It is finding that part of you that connects with other people and bringing it to life…. When you struggle, the Ubuntu in me reaches out to give you a hand. If you wander into my village with nothing to eat, our villagers will provide you with food. Why? Because at the deepest level we are all brothers and sisters…. If one of us hurts, we all hurt.

The rest of the story revolves around John’s learning journey, his epiphany, and the sharing of this new knowledge with the rest of the company.

If you are looking for engaging characters, a suspenseful plot, and a twist at the end, this is not the book for you. As William Gibson said recently, didactic fiction rarely results in deep characters or plot. And that’s fine, because the point of this story is to make a point.

For someone open to the idea of an engaging workplace, where each person is respected as a human first, and only then viewed as an employee, the story told in Ubuntu! will provide some insight into the possibilities. Ironically, these are the people who least need to read this book, because they probably already feel this way.

On the other hand, the people who could most benefit from this book – the managers who treat their employees like, well, employees – will most likely read this book and dismiss it as “touchy feely crap”.

The power of Ubuntu is, I’m afraid, one of those things that you have to experience to truly appreciate.