Saturday, October 18, 2003

Postrel over Kunstler

The speaker paired with Kunstler was Virginia Postrel, describing some of what's in her latest book, The Substance of Style, and a weird thing happened... or failed to happen.

The pairing had great potential. Kunstler says our cities have ended up lifeless and unwelcoming as a result of terrible design, poor urban planning, making the world safe for automobiles and other reasons. Postrel says we're entering the Age of Aesthetics, where design is King, where no company can ignore design as it develops its products and where people are increasingly using designed artifacts to sculpt their identities. The interaction of the two speakers should have been awesome, and in fact I thought I could see Kunstler restless with the desire to jump in. He's mad, motivated, inspired.

Instead, all the audience questions went to Postrel, whose message, intentional or otherwise, was that the resurgence of design is an overall good thing that is making the world a better place.

Having published pretty ambitious works before, Postrel has the perspective -- maybe even the responsibility -- to address larger issues, and it felt like her most recent thinking was comparatively thin and narrowly focused. PopTech attendees missed a nice opportunity to have the two points of view whacked together. I tend to think the crisis is larger and more pervasive, as Kunstler does.

Genius speaker: James Howard Kunstler

With a serious and side-splitting speech that eviscerated the epoch of American urban design that turned our inner cities into lifeless landscapes of human-hostile buildings and unlovable streets, Kunstler left us wanting more.

Among the memorable bits: calling a school that looks like a bunker the "Hannibal Lecter Middle School" and describing street-level shrubs that planners plant to make urban scenes more hospitable as "nature bandaids." All with deadpan delivery.

Kunstler is the author of The Geography of Nowhere and The City in Mind. His undesigned Website is here.

Hilarious song by Jonathan Coulton

Andrew Zolli and the other PopTech organizers have done a fantastic job of filling the spaces between official sessions with relevant, engaging stuff.

Yesterday one of these was singer/songwriter Jonathan Coulton, with a genius song titled "The Future Soon." Just him and his guitar. You can download and enjoy it here.

Friday, October 17, 2003

Biotech at PopTech

This first day of PopTech is focused on biotech, with multiple presenters trying to shake our brains up with happy threats that we might be able to delay aging (Aubrey de Gray), mix organic and non-organic substances in potentially dangerous ways (Alan Goldstein), make spare body parts on demand (Michael West) and otherwise mess with the matter of which we are made.

Best presentations so far: Juan Enriquez of Harvard Business School's Life Sciences Project (what, no site?), digital artist and Media Lab alumnus Golan Levin (he did the Dialtones Telesymphony) and de Gray, who is speaking now. He's really droll.

There's been a bit too much Pangloss here and not enough Mander, especially from Greg Stock, but I think it may even itself out.

Friday, October 10, 2003

Thanks, Dave!

I had the pleasure of meeting Dave Sifry at a Sand Hill Road event recently. He's at a great spot in his life. Having spent time at Linuxcare and Sputnik, his Technorati is taking off and turning into a business.

Better than all that from my perspective, he's kindly helped me start to find a blogging rhythm. A blogmute no more?

Grassroots restaurant reviews, courtesy Mark Hurst

Creative Good founder Mark Hurst has created a nifty site where people can collaborate to write restaurant reviews, navigating with a clickable map that shows neighborhoods. He started AddYourOwn.com with Manhattan restaurants and recently added San Francisco (hey, how 'bout the East Bay?), Brooklyn and Chicago, earning a writeup in the New York Times (requires subscription). Please jump in and improve the restaurant reviews.

When I lived in New York City, I wanted to see a site that would let people map the various districts: the flower district, the lighting district, the restaurant-supply district and so on. AddYourOwn plus Greg Elin's Fotowiki would do it.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

O'Reilly on Fresh Air

Listening to the Terry Gross interview of Bill O'Reilly (link courtesy of Heather Brown) prompted a few mixed reactions: Ouch.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Some seminal documents from Systems Theory

The discipline Operations Research (OR) has been highly influential. Robert McNamara and his Best and Brightest used OR techniques to plan and justify the way the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations ran the Vietnam... er, situation. (Eventually McNamara resigned, troubled by LBJ's decisions.)

In 1979, Russ Ackoff wrote a paper that was a milestone in management thinking, though it is little known. Published in the Journal of the Operational Research Society at the height of OR's influence, The Future of Ooperational Research is Past (pdf) indicted the ways that OR had come to be used by its many practitioners. Ackoff followed that paper with a more hopeful one, titled Resurrecting the Future of Operational Research (also pdf).

Shortly after he published these papers, Ackoff started the discipline of Social Systems Science and founded the Busch Center at Wharton, funded largely by Anheuser-Busch, one of Russ's major clients over time. Russ now heads Interact Design in Philadelphia.

Like the idealized redesign paper I just posted, I have permission to post these two papers here. It's not every day you can see history change just a bit as you read an article.

Idealized redesign

I've mentioned elsewhere that I'm a big fan of Russ Ackoff's thinking. Frustrated because I couldn't find a description of his methodologies for interactive planning and idealized redesign, I got permission to post a paper describing those processes (pdf format).

I began to write a summary, but it is so crisply written that I recommend you read it yourself. What I will say is that idealized redesign made me realize that if you never take the time to imagine what you really should be doing, as an individual or organization, you'll never get there. It also brought home to me just how difficult a process redesign is, because we are so wedded to assumptions we don't notice, historic business models and other, often dysfunctional baggage we take for granted.

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