Fuzzy searching?


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“Amit Singhai, one of Google’s veteran search algorithm engineers, wants to develop a search engine that second-guesses users’ needs well ahead of time,” reports Paul Marks in New Scientist magazine. “… In future, your Google account may be allowed, under some as-yet-unidentified privacy policy, to know a whole lot more about your life and the lives of those close to you. It will know birthdays and anniversaries, consumer gadget preferences, preferred hobbies and pastimes, even favourite foods. It will also know where you are, and be able to get in touch with your local stores on their websites. Singhai says that could make life a lot easier. For instance, he imagines his wife’s birthday is coming up. If he has signed up to the searching-without-searching algorithm … it sees the event on the horizon and alerts him – as a calendar function can now. But the software then reads his wife’s consumer preferences file and checks the real-time Twitter and Facebook feeds that Google now indexes for the latest buzz products that are likely to appeal to her.”

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Will totalitarianism make a comeback?


Another brilliant post by io9′s Charlie Jane Anders in which she asks former National Security Advisor in the Carter Administration, Zbigniew Brzezinski, whether totalitarianism is likely to make a comeback and the possible influence of social networking technologies to that effect.

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Will totalitarianism make a comeback? We asked Zbigniew  Brzezinski.Totalitarianism towered over the 20th century — a leader-focused, oppressive form of rule in which the individual was crushed. Now it seems to have receded as an ideal. But will it be back? We asked the expert, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Brzezinski is best known for having been the National Security Advisor in the Carter Administration, and for helping to dismantle the Ford Administration’s policy of detente towards the Soviet Union. But in the 1950s, he was one of the main scholars developing the theory of totalitarianism, and helping to spread the idea that both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union represented examples of this type of system. He’s currently Robert E. Osgood Professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

So when we were wondering if totalitarianism was discredited for good, or if it might still stage a resurgence, we could think of no better person to ask than Brzezinski. Here’s what he said, via email.

Will totalitarianism make a comeback? We asked Zbigniew  Brzezinski.You helped pioneer the idea of totalitarianism as a system of government. Do you think totalitarianism has been discredited as a form of government in the past couple of decades?

Totalitarianism has been discredited during the past several decades, but that does not mean that it cannot reoccur. However, the discerning aspect of totalitarianism is not simply that it is “totally” in control of society, but that it tries to change society according to a dogmatic blueprint, the latter usually being described as “ideology.” For the time being, there is no total ideology of change being advocated by any serious political grouping.

Does the rise of surveillance technology like ubiquitous video cameras and wiretapping make the rise of a new form of totalitarianism more likely? Could we see a new form of electronic totalitarianism for the 21st century?

If a new doctrine of total change arises, abetted and advocated by fanatics, then we might have another case of totalitarianism, one that will then benefit from the highly technological advanced forms of social control available to dictatorships.

On the other hand, do you think that the ability of people to share information anonymously online would make it impossible to suppress dissent as thoroughly as former totalitarian regimes such as the USSR once did?

It is more difficult to isolate societies from outside influences because of modern means of communication – but a truly fanatical regime, armed with the most advanced technology, could probably maintain such isolation for awhile. Nonetheless, the key issue is whether a new doctrine of total social change is likely to appear in the foreseeable future, and for that there is no categorical answer.

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What Peter Drucker might have said about the Hon Hai Suicides


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Rick Wartzman, executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University, wrote an excellent analysis that might shed light on why 10 workers at the Hon Hai Precision Industry plant (which manufactures the new Apple iPad) committed suicide this year. An article which illustrates once again that management is not merely about  scheduling and product lines, it’s also about human relationships and fostering a sense of community. AFter all, work IS life.

Peter Drucker and the Hon Hai Suicides

We will never really know why 10 workers at a Hon Hai Precision Industry plant in China have committed suicide this year and three others there have attempted to kill themselves. Yet their actions are a stark reminder for managers everywhere: The most complicated thing you will ever deal with, by far, is not some elaborate IT system or intricate financial model, but rather the people you must lead and inspire every day.

Work “is impersonal and objective,” Peter Drucker wrote in his 1973 classic, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “But working is done by a human being. … As the old human relations tag has it, ‘One cannot hire a hand; the whole man always comes with it.’ “

Because of this, Drucker believed, working has five specific dimensions, each of which recognizes that what we do on the job is “an essential part” of our humanity.

First, there is a physiological dimension. “If confined to an individual motion or operation, the human being tires fast,” Drucker pointed out. What’s more, he added, people perform best if they’re able to vary “both speed and rhythm fairly frequently” as they tackle a particular task. “What is good industrial engineering for work,” Drucker concluded, “is exceedingly poor human engineering for the worker.”

In China, some labor activists maintain that the shifts at Hon Hai, also known as Foxconn, are too long, the work is too repetitive, and the assembly line churning out products for Apple (AAPL), HP (HPQ), and others moves too fast. The company, based in Taiwan, has denied these charges. But there is no getting around the fact that all over the world, including in the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, a huge body of research has found that many people are overworked and their physical health is declining as a result.

Knowledge Workers Suffering, Too

This problem isn’t confined to those in factory jobs; knowledge workers are suffering similarly. Late last month, a senior executive at Bank of New York Mellon in London sued the firm for, among other things, allegedly piling on too much work. He had previously complained to his employer that “we are all working … unbearably hard.”

The second dimension of a person at work is psychological. “Work is an extension of personality,” Drucker wrote. “It is achievement. It is one of the ways in which a person defines himself or herself.”

Tellingly, perhaps, a 19-year-old Hon Hai worker who jumped to his death last week from a fifth-floor window of a training center left behind a note indicating that he had “lost confidence” in the future and had become convinced that what he once hoped to accomplish at work “far outweighed what could be achieved.

Although this young man’s reaction to such feelings was obviously extreme, the struggle to find meaning and fulfillment on the job is hardly unusual. Earlier this year, the Conference Board reported that only 45 percent of the Americans it surveyed are happy with their jobs, down from 61 percent in 1987—a long-term slide that the research organization said “should be a red flag to employers.”

The third dimension of working, according to Drucker, is that it provides a sense of community. Even in cases where people have outside activities, he wrote, the workplace is where they find much of their “companionship” and “group identification.”

In the case of Hon Hai, some observers have suggested that the company has grown so quickly, with about 400,000 workers at its sprawling Longhua complex, it has been difficult to forge these social bonds. One news report from Beijing quoted a former employee as saying: The factory “is too big. When I was walking to and from work … I felt helplessly lonely.”

How to Foster Community?

Those employing knowledge workers, meanwhile, face their own challenges on this front, as people have more and more choices about where they live and work and with whom they affiliate. For managers, this pattern leads to a tough question: How can you foster a close-knit community in an age of worker mobility?

Drucker’s fourth dimension of working is that it’s “a living”—”the foundation” of a person’s “economic existence.” In the U.S., Conference Board officials have made a direct link between people’s low job satisfaction and the dual hardship of stagnant wages and high out-of-pocket health-care costs.

China, where income inequality is widening, is now dealing with its own economic strife. A Honda Motor (HMC) transmission plant in Guangdong province resumed normal operations this week after the automaker offered to increase compensation by 24 percent to end a strike there. Also this week, Hon Hai announced that it would boost its workers’ pay by 30 percent. The company stressed that the raise was a response to a labor shortage, not the suicides, but one representative acknowledged that the move could help lift morale.

The fifth and final dimension, Drucker explained, is that there “is always a power relationship implicit … in working within an organization.” In any business, after all, “jobs have to be designed, structured, and assigned. Work has to be done on schedule and in a prearranged sequence. People are promoted or not promoted.” The trick, said Drucker, is to balance this authority with employee participation—to make sure that workers are given an adequate amount of freedom and responsibility.

But this is far from the only trick. Indeed, the thorniest job for any manager is to simultaneously address all of these things: the physiological, the psychological, the social, the economic, and the power dimension of working. The interplay among them, Drucker cautioned, “may be far too complex ever to be truly understood.”

Still, managers must try—with intelligence, sensitivity, and the constant realization that, while there is more to life than work, working is life.

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The Future of Canada-DPR Korea Relations


Weingartner Consulting is proud to present the publication of Failure of Engagement or Failure to Engage, the future of Canada-DPR Korea relations. To read publication, click here.

The publication is the culmination of a year of hard work, beginning with the joining of world class experts on North Korea in the latest Virtual ThinkNet (VTN) Scenarios project. Using email and an internet-based virtual platform, more than 50 Canadian and international DPRK watchers, scholars, civil servants and NGO representatives have contributed to a process that is culminating in the creation of narratives that project four possible futures in Canada-DPRK relations within the next decade.

Focal Question: A Role for Canada?

Grappling with the focal question, “Will Canada play a significant role in encouraging the DPRK towards regional peace and stability by 2020?” participants listed 78 major and minor “forces” that drive Canada’s role in the region. The most critical and uncertain of these drivers were then positioned on a matrix that produced parameters for four distinct futures. The four scenarios were the springboard of a face-to-face consultation in Toronto on November 11th, 2009. At the day-long meeting, participants formulated strategic options for Canadian policy at both governmental and civil society levels.

The VTN ‘Brain Trust’ of North Korea experts spent the Summer defining Canada’s place in a very complex region. Although Canada is one of a small number of Western countries that has diplomatic relations with the DPRK, it has so far played a very limited role, loosely defined as a ‘not-business-as-usual’ policy. Opinions are divided as to whether Canada should, or even could, play a more active role. While the Canadian government has decided to take a back seat to the leadership of the USA in the region, some Canadian NGOs have urged a more active role, providing humanitarian assistance, English language education for North Koreans, and maintaining people-to-people contacts.

Strength in Diversity

Those involved in the Virtual ThinkNet’s ‘Brain Trust’ straddle a variety of professions and political allegiances. Some members are in the public service, and therefore participated anonymously.

What differentiates the Virtual ThinkNet from the many think-TANKs out there is that think tanks usually operate from an ideologically fixed position. Because of the inclusiveness of the VTN’s Brain Trust on North Korea, our scenarios possess an authenticity that is unique.

Sponsored by the Toronto-based Canada-DPR Korea Association, the project was managed by Weingartner Consulting, publishers of the CanKor. Weingartner Consulting’s Virtual ThinkNet hosts scenarios-building processes that mimic methodologies generally used in weeklong face-to-face workshops. With the help of Canadian tech-marketing company the SomaeGroup, the VTN used the depth and breadth of innovative social networking technologies to achieve a fertile collaboration that is accessible to busy professionals.

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In Praise of Generalists


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In his article In Praise of Generalists, Anthony Townsend (Institute for the Future) touches on why the time for elevating  “specialists” has passed. We need what he calls “transdisciplinary thinking” to tackle the future, and ongoing conversations which include, but are not restricted to, specialists.

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In Praise of Generalists

The last decade has been witness to the rise of the geeks. What began as a glorification of tech entrepreneurs making it big from the rise of the IT industry, has now permeated every aspect of society. Single-minded obsession with obscure endeavors, hyper-specialization, and technical nerdery of all sorts are glorified across the board.

But is such geekery really a good way to foster talent? The most pressing problems in science and technology, and more broadly in business and the economy, don’t lend themselves readily to specialists’ solutions. They require not just inter-discipinary teamwork to make progress, but transdisciplinary thinking – literally, we need people that can have conversations between disciplinary appraoches to problems inside their own head. In fact, you could argue that most of the gridlock around big problems like global warming, health care, and so on, stem from the inability of narrow specialist and interest groups to speak each others’ language, translate heuristics and integrate complex concepts and data. They’re too specialized, having become more and more isolated in focused communities, thanks to the web.

Let’s take a classic example of a geek to unpack this dilemma. London taxi drivers are uber-geeks, memorizing the entire fractal street network of one of the world’s biggest cities. In fact, they are so specialized that scientists have measured distinct enlargement of a portion of the hippocampus in their brains. Yet another recent study has found that the widespread use of GPS technology for personal navigation is reducing the ability of everyday people to find their way at all. On the one hand, the super geeks who can DIY, on the other, lost sheep perpetually dependent on assistive technology.

Before you cry foul, and lament the loss of another basic human ability, let me ask you – are you lamenting the ability to do tell time from environmental cues (destroyed by clocks), to do complex mathematical calculations in your mind (destroyed by calculators), or to remember facts (destroyed by Google)? No, because each of these technologies, to which we’ve outsourced some basic functions, have allowed us to give up some geekery in order to spend our precious brain cycles on more broad, integrative thinking. (Of course, the more worrying part of the study, that atrophy of the hippocampus might be tied to dementia, should not be overlooked. But it’s a very preliminary finding)

I have alternated back and forth between geekery and generalism in my own career. I can say without a doubt, I’m happier and more productive, and more relevant, when I’m a generalist.

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Why swarming locusts grow giant brains


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One of my favorite blogs posted this recently. (If you do visit the original site – the comments are worth a scan too – who says geeks have no sense of humor?).  I did read though that a leap in the evolution of the human brain is attributed to the way we increasingly banded into groups.

At the risk of anthropomorphizing locusts, I can’t help but wonder what living in urban settings might be doing to our brains – any ideas? How about swarming social networks? I can’t stop thinking “mob mentality”, but then…

Credit to the author: Tim Barribeau

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When the conditions are just right, solitary grasshoppers undergo a terrifying transformation that converts them into masses of swarming locusts that destroy crops. New research reveals why swarming locusts grow much bigger brains than ordinary grasshoppers.

During times of scarcity, locusts default to a solitary form, actively avoiding others of their species. However, when rain comes and plants bloom, the insects undergo a dramatic conversion. It’s thought to be triggered by their legs bumping in to one another due to the increase in population density, and the grasshoppers shrink, change color, and behavior. They eat more, breed easily, and constantly pump serotonin into their body, which encourages the swarming.

So what happens to the brains of these insects when they so dramatically change? They significantly alter their behavior in order to survive as a swarm, which then has a dramatic effect on their brains. Researchers at the University of Cambridge compared the solitary and gregarious modes of the Desert Locust, and found intriguing alterations.

Even though in their swarming form the locusts are smaller than when they’re solitary, their brains are approximately 30% larger. With this transformation, the areas devoted to vision and smell decreased markedly, but there was a huge growth in the areas associated with learning and processing complex information.

In other words, their brains shift towards dealing with the intricacies of the swarm. Says Dr. Swidbert Ott:

Their bigger and profoundly different brains may help swarming locusts to survive in the cut-throat environment of a locust swarm. Who gets to the food first wins and if they don’t watch out, they themselves become food for other locusts. In a nutshell, you need to be brainier if you want to make it in the mayhem that is a locust swarm. As swarming locusts move through the landscape, they face much more of a challenge in finding and assessing potential foods, which may be something new that they have never encountered before.

The researchers hope this will provide more insight into the development and evolution of brains in response to social pressures and the environment.

via Proceedings of the Royal Academy B

Send an email to Tim Barribeau, the author of this post, at tim@io9.com.

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The Future is a place created…


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“The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created–created first in the mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating.”

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