Category Archives: Organization

Why I Care About Ontology

Staircase perspective.

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In a broad sense of the term, any particular ontology serves as a framework against which we interpret information; think of it like an organized perspective that we use as a lens to view and understand the world.

When you study a culture you are concerned with figuring out how they understand the world and how they make sense of the world.  This study of sense-making follows the concept that people do what seems logical and rational to their perspective.  I am interested in mapping these sense-making resources and translating them into a format that reveals the internal consistency and relationships between the rationale and the external context and stimuli.

If you look back through the histories of science & philosophy you will see the pendulum swing between two extremes in regard to ontology, one extreme believes that there is a unified and complete ontological structure to the world, the other extreme believes that there are many unified and complete ontological structures.  This is the debate between whether we can know truth objectively, or whether it is known as a perspective.

In my work I explore how we construct global formal ontologies as well as how we generate idiosyncratic folk-ontologies; this is the both/and response – I want to know how we engage in thinking when it is shaped by public beliefs and private beliefs and what it takes to reconcile the disjunctions.

One of the ideas that has kept my attention the longest is that the structure of a thought represents the choices that have been made to arrive at that thought, and that structure also shows us what has been ignored as the thought is being formed.  I want to know how the external world interacts with the internal world.  I want to know how it directs our thinking.  This is the foundational riddle that makes me want to do linguistics.

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How I became a Linguist: Characteristics of Intelligent Behavior

Systems thinking about the society

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Sometime in the early nineties my mother gave me a list of Arthur Costa’s twelve characteristics of intelligent behavior.  This list actually had a lot of influence in my life as I stumbled upon the trajectory toward anthropology and linguistics.  It taught me that I could actually organize observations and thoughts and cause them to not only make sense out of reality, but to blend the sense-making process with the process of describing reality.

I wanted to summarize Costa’s 1988 list here and to provide a link to a full article by Costa that explains the rationale behind each of the list items.

  1. Persistence, persevering when the solution to a problem is not immediately apparent
  2. Decreasing Impulsivity
  3. Listening to Others – with Empathy and Understanding
  4. Flexibility in Thinking
  5. Metacognition: Awareness of Our Own Thinking
  6. Checking for Accuracy and Precision
  7. Questioning and Problem Posing
  8. Drawing on Past Knowledge and Applying it to New Situations
  9. Precision of Language and Thought
  10. Using All the Senses
  11. Ingenuity, Originality, Insightfulness: Creativity
  12. Wonderment, inquisitiveness, curiosity, and the enjoyment of problem solving – a sense of efficacy as a thinker [Costa: 1988]

What strikes me as important in this list, is the correlation to the task of conducting both anthropological and linguistic fieldwork.  Wherever one is a stranger this list equips with the basic attitude necessary to learn to fit it, or at least to be welcomed in to a community.

This list is also manifest in anyone doing any kind of systems science.  All twelve of these skills make it possible for you to collect data, analyze it, and turn it into some kind of presentable report that describes the system.  This three activity cycle: collect, analyze, present is what I feel is at the core of being any kind of productively observational person.

Since this original list was published in the 80’s, Costa has revised it under the label “Habits of Mind” and expanded it to include 16 habits.  Since this revised list was not a part of my path to linguistics I chose instead to list the original.  However, the revised list is great and can be found here.

Bibliography:

Costa, Arthur, L. (1988). Teaching for Intelligence: recognizing and encouraging skillful thinking and behavior. (p.22) in Transforming Education (IC #8), Context Institute. Stable URL: http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC18/Costa.htm

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On Failure & Resilience in Optimization of Human Systems, Ecological Systems, and Networked Systems of Systems

I was recently watching Eleanor Saitta’s talk called “Your Infrastructure Will Kill You“.  Part of her talk outlined how optimization equals fragility (more or less).  That to the degree that something is cleaner, more elegant, or more efficient, it is fragile, and a break in the system can be potentially catastrophic.

In thinking about her comments I thought of a few examples where I have observed optimization creating a state of fragility, here are a few of my thoughts:

  • This has interesting considerations for general principles of design, specifically the form/function aspect of design. Probably the point at which form begins to extend beyond the needs of function the focus on form becomes gratuitous and potentially even hazardous (depending on the type of system).  Ironically, optimization in this case is not absolute optimization, but only optimization considering a specific set of requirements: when things are running smoothly then the system is optimized.
  • Another place for failure is when relationships are optimized; when the dispersal of information through a system relies on optimized relationships it only takes the breaking of one of the nodes in a network to create a chain reaction of subsequent nodes being uninformed.We think about how a well-connected network effectively distributes information, specifically in recent thought this informed an analysis of William Dawes vs. Paul Revere – showing how Revere’s relationship of network brokers enabled him to broadcast more extensively than Dawes’ impoverished closed network.  This is good thinking, except that it misses the point of threat: Revere was a weak link in that optimized chain of information; had he been eliminated his message would have been eliminated.  Revere and his network, although connected and optimized, were fragile.
  • In generative linguistics there is an optimization of the lexicon. Economy in space is valued above economy in processing; if this is opaque to you, I mean that generative linguistics tries to minimize the amount of information that it stores as unique units.  It is called “generative” because it generates complex utterances from values stored in the lexicon through recursion, instead of storing those values as wholes.  But there is a weakness; in optimizing the lexicon the generative power of the spell-out rules of Universal Grammar are fragile when it comes to dealing with actual language usage (which is the test of a linguistic theory, is it not?), and the rules fail to account for some foundational constructions of language (like idioms for example).

Ok, so there are lots of places where optimization leads to failure, but what are some ways in which optimization leads to resilience?  What are some solutions to these problems?

Redundancy is a great solution, but it is bulky.

  • When function is optimized it allows you to work backwards in the process of making things have better forms. This is actually how a lot of design progresses.  Think about how every piece of electronic technology that we have today had a larger predecessor.  Think about those clunky mobile phones from the eighties with the handset, base and cord in a leather bag, now look at the mobile phone you carry in your pocket.  Functionality was concept proven in the clunky design, and the form was optimized to enhance the function.
  • It seems to me that the optimization weakness in the Revere incident was that Revere was the weak link.  Instead of depending on the optimization of Revere’s relationships, perhaps the message itself needed optimization. One possible way to optimize the information load of a message is to abstract it (as was done with the signal of the hanging lanterns to indicate the route of attack), and another way is to reduce dependence upon a single messenger exploiting a network (In 1775 the sexton who hung the lanterns was a single messenger, Revere was a single messenger, et cetera).  Flooding a network with messengers bearing an abstracted signal would have been less fragile (put aside for the moment the need for secrecy in the 1775 incident).  In situations where secrecy is not vital, consider how this kind of network flooding would communicate the coherence of the message; when you hear the same thing from five people you at least start giving some credence to the constancy of the message.  In such cases what may have been unknown or even background information becomes salient and foregrounded through repeated exposure. Also, consider other types of signals that can be exploited to prompt a response of crowd mobilization, noises work particularly well.  Sirens and loud noises alert and orient people’s attentional systems toward the source of the signal, and that source becomes figural in the contextual noise of that signal.
  • Optimization can lead to resilience in online processing, like in a maximized lexicon that places the task of optimization on the processing skills required in the selection and extraction of form-meaning elements from the inventory.  Cognitive approaches to the lexicon seek to preserve economy in processing; instead of having a minimal lexicon with lots of processing rules, the cognitive approach has an ordered inventory of form-meaning pairings (including monomorphemic elements, constructions, and phrases that are learned whole), with an optimized processing system of constraints, schemas, and other elements of cognitive processing (see this week’s post on emergentist vs. universalist view for understanding the contrast in general cognitive processing vs. modular mind).
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Doing Strategic Planning #4: Adapting Existing Organization-External Materials for Internal Use

GDP Composition By Sector and Labour Force By ...

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This is part of the continuing series about Strategic Planning and outlines the process I am using with a particular organization.  I wanted to briefly explain something that I think is a viable pattern for learning from others, namely, looking at their work and seeing how you need to shape your own work in order to be considered a participating member of the industry.

The organization I am working for is trying to draft a strategic plan that also accounts for decision-making policies in how they invest in different causes.  Many of those causes include development work in places that have the shared features of extreme poverty, drastically different cultural values, and non-Western perspectives (i.e., post-colonial environments).  After listening to the organization talk about their vision and mission and seeing the history of their work and recognizing their place of respect in the development community I felt that it was important to make sure that they were at least in line with the ethical standards of similar industries (especially anthropology).  After looking through different industry codes of ethics I decided that the American Anthropological Association had a superb code of ethics and that without violating copyrights I would use it as a research tool to identify the major domains of concern for ethical conduct.  This is an ongoing process and it will be a few weeks before I am completely content with the results.  My approach will include working with my organization to help them see how the AAA code of ethics can inform their own tactics and methods that emerge to meet the strategic goals.  Basically, I hope that the organization can use this code of ethics to continue to drive their own policy and decision-making.

This is following my personal learning strategy: Collect, Analyze, Present.  And I am teaching the organization to collect the views of others, to analyze how they might apply to their own work, and present them in a format that suits the strategic goals of the organization.

Stay tuned for updates.

Post Script: WordPress has a feature that suggests related articles and before I published this article it suggested this interesting link: http://godspace.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/organic-strategic-planning-a-wave-of-the-future/

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Ham Radio was the original Twitter

Amateur radio station of DJ4PI

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So I was driving home last night and saw an old man in his station wagon, I happened to notice that his license plate was his amateur radio call sign.  This promptly reminded me of a recent occurrence at the Linguistic Society of America’s annual meeting where some of my Twitter friends had a “TweetUp” (for the uninitiated, it is akin to a “Meet Up”). In the lobby of the hotel we started to introduce ourselves by our Twitter profile names.  In fact, most people had their profile name on the back of their conference name badge printed like this: “@SportLinguist” (go ahead, follow me).

As my first exposure to this kind of behavior it was an interesting moment for me.  But this is certainly not the first time this has happened for Twitter users, and it is certainly not the firs time it has happened in technological history.  Pre-internet days had people using Citizen Band (CB) radios where everyone had a “Handle” (aka: radio name), and this was the tool that truckers and road-trippers used to stay connected on the lonely highway.  Before the CB was the Amateur Radio and the “Hams” that used them.  In fact, so as not to mislead you, Amateur Radio still has a strong presence and user base, even recently being used in OUTER SPACE at the International Space Station. Continue reading

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Doing Strategic Planning #2: Decision Making and Identifying Policy Material through Discourse Analysis

,., decision making

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Continuing on the posts about strategic planning, today I want to share how I encourage people to develop policy.  The organization that I am helping had a baseline report drafted by a committee member.  In the baseline report all of the areas of involvement were catalogued and this person identified several gaps in the way that the organization operated.  This person also organized all of the decision-making processes that the organization (a small foundation) uses to conduct day-to-day business and to make decisions about monetary investments & expenditures.

The organization has a long history of successful functioning and I am only a recent player in the story, but the organization is in a state of transformation and part of my role is to bring consistency to the process of adaptation.  Basically this project is sort of the development of a change-management strategy.  This means that a lot of policies will need to be rewritten.  In fact, decision-making is the prime goal of this particular strategic planning project.

Because the organization already had several documents and had recently drafted the baseline report I was able to compare the report to the historical documents and identify statements that would drive the prospective policy.  I borrow a common industry standard called “requirements” that are basically active-voice, single-proposition statements that elucidate a concept that is vital to be considered in the system (the decision-making process in our case).  Another feature of these statements is that they usually contain an auxiliary modal to indicate a degree of forcefulness behind the statement.  Again, the idea is to get at what things are vital to be considered in the decision-making process.

I took the baseline report and identified what the committee member found as criteria for decision-making.  I made a list of these items.  Next, I took the historical decision-making documents and identified where those criteria came from in the historical document and made a list of those locations.  This is like the process of making a concordance of references and is similar to the data management strategies that field linguists and anthropologists use in constructing data tables and dictionaries.

I asked the organization members to look through the documents and draft their own list of these vital statements so that through the process of this shared discourse experience they would become increasingly familiar with the actual textual material that we will be using to draft the strategy and goals in subsequent meetings.  The idea was to get people thinking about what their real needs actually are before they start looking to the future and to do this with an eye toward using policy to keep their strategy planning in line with their vision and mission statement and other relevant brand documentation.

Stay tuned for further updates.

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Guest Post: The Digital Polis – Nicholas Carson Miller

I invited Nicholas Carson Miller to guest post on the shape of a particular internet culture…I hope you enjoy his work -SportLinguist

I. The New Prehistory

We can’t go ask ancient peoples what was going on when they decided to get together and start building cities. Frustratingly, none of the folks involved in the development of prehistoric communities are still around to ask and weren’t kind enough to leave detailed ethnographic and historical accounts of their experiences. Shame on them. We can, however, connect to the internet and observe the development of a new kind of community.

Early humans, tiring of wandering and hunting alone, began living around one another, trying their hands at farming, trading necessities and surpluses, and finding increasingly productive and complex ways to protect and govern the communities that developed. Early internet users logged on alone, visiting web pages and sending limited communications—but then a need for specialized communal activities lead to email lists, chat rooms, social networks, and, most interestingly, forums.

These internet communities, especially certain infamous and influential forums such as 4chan, Gaia Online, and Something Awful, are beginning to exhibit fascinating cultural trends that are to me reminiscent of early city-states. The development of the culture of these communities should be taken as a possible reflection of the development of real-world communities and is conveniently occurring right before our eyes at a highly accelerated rate. Continue reading

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Doing Strategic Planning #1: Vision & Mission Statements

Post-It

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One of the services that I provide is to help small organizations and groups do strategic planning.  My approach is to shepherd the group through the process and get them thinking about how the different elements of a strategic plan actually work together to drive decision-making policy.  I don’t like to get caught up in mechanistic template driven planning, but really try to understand (with ethnographic insight) the soul of the organization and let the strategy emerge through a process of self-identification.  If you know anything about my research or my art, narrative is a key element in my beliefs about identity.  I like to bring that into the planning process.

All that to say, this morning I was helping a committee define a 5 year strategic plan that will account for a variety of goals and investments.  After I walked away from the first meeting I thought that this might be an appropriate thing to blog about since I feel that it relates to just about any organization whether it is individual as enterprise, research programs, community development organizations, et cetera.  In fact, it possibly even relates to the ways in which we manage ad hoc committees. Continue reading

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CONTAINER Is an Ontological Metaphor

Ontological Metaphors are metaphors that give shape to abstract concepts and even contribute to the structure of Primary Metaphors.  CONTAINER is one of those metaphors. Continue reading

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“Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness”

I remember reading a book about Germans that an anthropologist I knew in England let me borrow for the day. The most striking part of the book, at the time, was the recount of the author’s experience of seeing a dusty car in a parking lot on which some witty passer-by had written in the dirt that the condition of the car was the condition of that person’s inner life; filthy, unkempt, and disorganized.

The state of the artifacts of our life reflect and betray our true self.

My wife recently found a box of her childhood belongings at her mother’s house in the back of the storage room. She opened the box and looked at her cherished childhood possessions – doll clothes from when she lived in Thailand…still clean and folded. She told me that she took care of the few things she owned because she had so little. I love how my wife reflects her inner self onto her outer belongings. She really cares about things.

The state of the artifacts of our life reflect and betray our true self.

This past Sunday, my wife and I were out for brunch, and at the table behind us there was a woman talking about a recent trip to somewhere in Europe – noting how a storage bin like a rubbermaid cost 35 euros. The woman kept going on an on about how expensive it was to buy a box, how she gets them here for 5 dollars. And all I could think about was how much more neat and tidy Europeans are because of how expensive it really is to by crappy stuff. Who really needs the things that they plan to keep in a box?

I will say it again, the state of the artifacts of our life reflect and betray our true self.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

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