Mystics, poets and best practices

At the Transmission Project we’re steadily working towards fleshing out our critique of best practice and the proposal of an alternative: _ honest practice_.

If “best practices” are the standards of excellence within organizations considered high performing, how can it be expected that those standards could be immediately implemented in startup programs? What of differences in organizational culture and constituencies, not to mention technical and information systems? Is innovation supported if funding follows conventional wisdom? How do we know that wisdom is valid when our industry is trained to share only the lessons of success and not of failure?

The difference between honest practice and best practice reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Poet”: poets translate underlying patterns and deep truths into the vernacular;  mystics create shallow snapshots that soon lose their greater meaning.

Readers of poetry see the factory-village, and the railway, and fancy that the poetry of the landscape is broken up by these. for these works of art are not yet consecrated in their reading; but the poet sees them fall within the great Order not less than the bee-hive, or the spider’s geometrical web. Nature adopts them very fast into her vital circles, and the gliding train of cars she loves like her own. Besides, in a centred mind, it signifies nothing how many mechanical inventions you exhibit. Though you add millions, and never so surprising, the fact of mechanics has not gained a grain’s weight. The spiritual fact remains unalterable, by many or by few particulars; as no mountain is of any appreciable height to break the curve of the sphere. …

But the quality of the imagination is to flow, and not to freeze. The poet did not stop at the color, or the form, but read their meaning; neither may he rest in this meaning, but he makes the same objects exponents of his new thought. Here is the difference betwixt the poet and the mystic, that the last nails a symbol to one sense, which was a true sense for a moment, but soon becomes old and false. For all symbols are fluxional; all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead. Mysticism consists in the mistake of an accidental and individual symbol for an universal one. The morning-redness happens to be the favorite meteor to the eyes of Jacob Behmen, and comes to stand to him for truth and faith; and he believes should stand for the same realities to every reader. But the first reader prefers as naturally the symbol of a mother and child, or a gardener and his bulb, or a jeweller polishing a gem. Either of these, or of a myriad more, are equally good to the person to whom they are significant. Only they must be held lightly, and be very willingly translated into the equivalent terms which others use. And the mystic must be steadily told, —All that you say is just as true without the tedious use of that symbol as with it. Let us have a little algebra, instead of this trite rhetoric, —universal signs, instead of these village symbols, —and we shall both be gainers.

" manically participatory..."

Three years ago I told a friend of mine—he having just been hired as a community support manager for a global ICT in education project—to “be manically participatory” as he retells it over dinner this evening. He is now convening their first international volunteer summit with attendees from 6 continents and the event is sold out.

This is not a website

In conversation with a friend, he mentioned his dream for a “No Website” Movement: content should be freed for consumption in whatever format its consumer desires.

This is not a website; it’s a scrapbook, a swipe file and a memory hole. There is no separation between content and design, form or function: all is one. Island 94 looks like a blog insofar as this is the necessary form for its proper function: a legitimating feature and rhetorical device.

Rhetoric is the issue: just as curriculum requires an instructor, information requires delivery. The worst textbooks have always been readers: excerpts disconnected from their authors’ greater work and padded with soft introductions.

I admit weakness in the face of emancipated content—I love my RSS reader and happily feed the beast—but that is only vane productivity. Enlightenment, if it is to be found on the web, shall come from unity, not incoherence.

Making language of meaning

From Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers—whose quoting by me here is the result of coming across another example (via GiftHub) of the (false) metaphor of the tube.

My account of meaning is grounded in what real people do when they speak and write. When people speak or write successfully with each other it looks as though there is a transfer of meaning: the speaker puts the meaning into the words and the listener takes it out at the other end. If you look at it from the larger perspective this account is fair: the listener ends up knowing what the speaker wanted him to know and ends up knowing something he never knew before, and so it must be that the words put this knowledge into his head. But it is important also to take a closer perspective and realize that, strictly speaking, words cannot contain meaning. Only people have meaning. Words can only have meaning attributed to them by people. The listener can never get any meaning out of a word that he didn’t put in. Language can only consist of a set of directions for building meanings out of one’s own head. Though the listener’s knowledge seems new, it is also not new: the meaning may be thought of as structures he never had in his head before, but he had to build these new structures out of ingredients he already had. The speaker’s words were aset of directions for assembling this already-present material.

To change the metaphor. Meaning is like movies inside the head. I’ve got movies in my head. I want to put them inside yours. Only I can’t do that because our heads are opaque. All I can do is try to be clever about sending you a sound track and hope I’ve done it in such a way as to make you construct the right movies in your head. What’s worse, of course, is that since neither of us can see the movies in each other’s head, we are apt to be mistaken about how well we are doing in trying to make the other person show himself the movie we have in mind.

We can let ourselves talk about words “having meaning” and even “carrying meaning from one head to another” as long as we now realize these phrases denote something complex: the words don’t transport the contents of my head into yours, they give you a set of directions for building your own meaning. If we are both good at writing directions and following directions for building meaning, we end up with similar things in our heads—that is, we communicate. Otherwise, we experience each other’s words as “not having any meaning in them,” or “having the wrong meaning in them.”

The question is then how these meaning-building rules operate in ordinary language. Meaning in ordinary language—English, for example—is midway on a continuum between meaning in dreams and meaning in mathematics. Dreams may be hard to interpret, but the nature of the meaning situation is very simple because there is no audience. Dreams are all “speaking” and no “listening”: dreams are for the sake of dreaming, not for the sake of interpreting. Therefore, though dreams or dream-images have particular, definite meanings, they can mean anything. They have whatever meaning the dreamer of that particular dream built into them. The rules for dreaming are as follows: let anything mean anything. (We could be fancy and say that the meaning-building rules for dreams are the rules of “resemblance” and “association.” But everything resembles everything else to some extent, and anything is liable to be associated somehow with anything else. Thus anything can mean anything.) If we dream of a gun or a steeple, we may be talking about a penis, but then again we may not. And we may dream about a penis with any image at all. In dreaming you can never make a mistake.

At the other extreme is a language like mathematics. Here people have gone to the trouble to nail down the rules for building meaning into symbols. Something may mean only what these publicly acknowledged rules allow it to mean. In mathematics there are mistakes, and any argument about what something means or whether there is a mistake can be settled without doubt or ambiguity. (Perhaps there are exceptions in some advanced mathematical research.)

Meaning in ordinary language is in the middle. It is pushed and pulled simultaneously by forces that try to make it fluid and dreamlike but also fixed like mathematics.

The individual user of ordinary language is like the dreamer. He is apt to build in any old meaning to any old word. Everybody has just as many connotations and associations to a word as he does to an image. Thus, as far as the individual is concerned, a word is liable—and often tends—to mean absolutely anything.

To illustrate this dream-like fluidity of ordinary language, notice that words do in fact end up meaning anything as they move through time and across mountain ranges. “Down” used to mean “hill” (“dune”), but because people said “down hill” a lot (“off- dune”), and because they were lazy (“adown”), finally hill means down. Philology, it has been said, is a study in which consonants count for very little and vowels for nothing at all. A word may change its meaning to absolutely anything.

But the mathematics-like force for order is just as strong. That is, though words in ordinary language can mean anything, they only do mean what the speech community lets them mean at that moment. But unlike the case of mathematics, these agreements are not explicitly set down and agreed to. That is, our rules for building meaning into words are unspoken and are learned by doing, by listening to others, and even by listening to ourselves. It’s like one of those party games where people get you to start playing before you know the rules of the game and indeed part of the fun is learning gradually to understand the rules after you find yourself following them. When you pick up the rules you can play—you can send and receive messages with others who know the rules. These rules for building meaning may be thought to be written down in dictionaries. But dictionaries are only records of yesterday’s rules, and today’s may be somewhat different. And dictionaries don’t tell all the meanings that speakers send to each other in words.

The dynamism between the dream characteristics and the math characteristics in ordinary language is important: there is a constant tug of war. The individual is tending to allow words to mean anything—just as he allows dream images to mean whatever he builds in. Not because he is naughty but simply because he is a meaning-building creature and cannot refrain from constantly building new meanings into everything he encounters.

But the speech community is constantly curbing this looseness. When an individual speaker means things by a set of words which the community of listeners does not “hear,” he tends to give in to the community and stop meaning those things by those words: that is, when they don’t build in at their end what he builds in at his, he either stops building it in or else remains unconscious of meanings of the words. Similarly, when an individual listener hears things in a set of words which the community of speakers do not mean, he also tends to give in to the community and stop hearing those meanings or stop being aware of having those meanings for those words. (The exceptions to this process illustrate it well. When there are listeners who are especially eager to know what is on someone’s mind—someone like a specially loved child or a poet such as Blake—they will learn to interpret his words even if he talks like a dreamer. If there’s enough utterance and enough care, the code can always be cracked.)

The history of meaning in a language is the history of this power struggle between dream characteristics and math characteristics. Rules for meaning-building change when some speaker is somehow powerful and makes people “hear” in an utterance what they never used to hear in it. And even a listener can be powerful in this subtle way (be an unmoved mover) and make people “mean” in an utterance what they had not meant before. When, on the other hand, the community holds its own, meanings don’t change. Humpty Dumpty put his finger on it:

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knockdown argument,’ “Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “who is to be master—that’s all.”

Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

The picture is oversimplified, however, if we talk of only one speech community. For actually there are many overlapping speech communities for each individual—building up to the largest one: all speakers of, say, English. Smaller subcommunities are in the middle in this power struggle. On the one hand, they exert stabilizing force upon the individual’s dreamlike fluid tendency of meaning. But on the other hand, they are not as strongly stabilizing as the larger speech community is—that is, I can change the meaning-building rules of my friends sooner than I can do it to a larger community. And so, in fact, the smaller communities turn out to act as forces for fluidity upon larger communities.

This model implies that meaning in ordinary language consists of delicate, flexible transactions among people in overlapping speech communities—peculiar transactions governed by unspoken agreements to abide by unspecified, constantly changing rules as to what meanings to build into what words and phrases. All the parties merely keep on making these transactions and assuming that all the other parties abide by the same rules and agreements. Thus, though words are capable of extreme precision among good players, they nevertheless float and drift all the time.

Elbow does a better job than anyone in characterizing non-converging processes: change just is. And this is just about the meaning of words; add on to that form, structure, medium, authority and all the other trappings of rhetoric that are themselves constantly reconstructed.

But that is why I’m a language nerd: it’s enjoyable to float on your back in the warm ocean with the sun on your face and feel the lapping of a million tiny waves pushing you about (and imagining the millions of tiny waves pushing them about and so forth). As long as you can balance those thoughts with the vigilance necessary to keep from drifting into the surf zone or floating out to sea, searching for a stationary spot on the beach can’t compare.

Nonprofit Social Media Literacy

A comment I made back in April on a blog post entitled “ 4 Poor Excuses for Avoiding Social Media” that asked the question “Are there good reasons to avoid social media?”:

Not to be a hater, but how about: “Social Media is based upon an exploitative business model that seeks to monetize your relationships and personal/private information.”

I totally agree that Social Media can be quite effective at reaching out to people. But I also think the business model that enables social media services (like Facebook and Twitter, or other “free” services that are ad supported) undermines the social change work some nonprofits are attempting to bring about. While on one hand social media strengthens your organization’s ability to organize and mobilize for a cause, on the other hand its strengthening massive media, advertising, and data-mining companies who will use the money they earn from your participation to act and advocate against your social interests.

Social media might be a necessary evil, but I think its important to recognize that there is an “evil” involved.

And a response in followup to this being a topic that “rarely gets mentioned outside of geek circles”:

I think you’re right that this barely gets mentioned outside of geek (and media literacy) circles. That’s what makes it pernicious. It’s not obvious how these tools work and who they enrich.

I presented a grant proposal last night at an anti-racism foundation. One of the other presenting groups was a community group that was organizing to make sure that stimulus projects were going to local/people-of-color contractors. They would drive around their community looking for those big “America Works” signs and then ask the contractors where they were from and record the gender/race makeup of the workers.

Unfortunately, with a lot of media tools its not that easy to know who is behind them. Facebook’s Board of Directors, for example, is entirely white men. Their Executive Leadership team, of 13, is 2 women and 1 person of color.

I don’t think a boycott is the right thing to do. But I think there should be broader awareness and dialogue about how the new Internet economy can reinforce existing structural inequalities and injustice.

That last point is the important one: we spend so much time talking about the relationships social media creates between us and our constituents that we sometimes forget the relationships that are created between us and the social media providers themselves. Who is using whom?

Find fresh perspectives at

Myself and the Nonprofit Millennial Blogger Alliance are proud to announce the launch of a new website: “We blog about the millennial generation and nonprofits!”

The Nonprofit Millennial Blogger Alliance is made up of young writers collectively bringing important issues about the nonprofit sector to the forefront. While each of us looks at the sector from a different perspective we share the view that millennials offer something valuable to nonprofits.

By sharing our knowledge and experiences from within Generation Y we can help prepare the next generation—and engage current generations—in addressing the pressing issues that continue to shape the nonprofit sector and the world

The website aggregates posts from all members of the alliance in one place, making it easy to find a fresh article, subscribe to everyone’s RSS feed all in one place, or easily find us on Twitter ( @npmillennials) where new articles are posted too.

I led the technical development and design on the website and am very proud of the outcome. The concept for a central aggregating website had been batted around for several months and I was able to take the lead as closer. We wanted a straightforward website that would highlight but not overshadow the writings of individual bloggers. It’s built on Wordpress, and posts are aggregated via the FeedWordPress plugin (which does an awesome job linking all posts back to their original author’s website, not ours!). Because the main focus is on our authors, not their content, there is a little secret sauce holding it all together.

So if you’re a millennial blogger writing about social change or the nonprofit sector, please consider joining us. And don’t forget that “millennial” has 2 N’s (I do, all the time).

Fondly remembered experiments in minimal webdesign

Tomorrow is launch day for a blog aggregator website I worked on, but because I can’t write about that just yet I thought I’d write about a website whose development has influenced a lot of my approach to minimal webdesign:

(Few things ever die on the Internet, but Pantextual is definitely past its prime and has aged poorly as functions have been disabled to thwart spammers. Be that may…)

Pantextual was a micro-blogging experiment developed by Rebecca White and me in 2006; before we were completely sure we wanted to blog via text message. As an experiment, our intent was more of exploration than refinement—and refining with Drupal 5RC would have taken all the fun out of it. Our about page read:

Sometimes even a little bit is too much.

But what if it was really beautiful, interesting and fun?

Then you might not notice all the other irritations of life so much.

Perhaps you might enjoy it.

Our goal was to fit as much content into a square box as possible and yet still make it a pleasure to read and an invitation to explore.

There was the obvious: nice typography (and Rebecca is to thank for the lovely ligature in the logo); gracefully overflowing if the content wouldn’t fit (you never know); not overwhelming the reader with content, even if it’s brief; and being playful: short content tends to be pithy content and we wanted a functional design to match.

The biggest problem by far was metadata. We wanted to stick with the standard conventions: date, author, categories, comments; we needed to find a place to put them and where we put them would determine if they were meaningful. Categories were the most fun to explore.

On Pantexual, we put categories inline, creating a custom syntax for tagging words as categories within the content itself. We also only displayed those words as categories if there was more than 1 post with that category. As the website filled in, we would place other content related through the categories next to the post itself, inviting exploration.

All in all, we did pretty good with a 400 pixel square box… maybe we should resuscitate it.

P, NP and Panlexicon

This week I updated Panlexicon’s Word of the Day for Twitter’s new authentication API requirements, squeaking in just under the August 30 deadline. Panlexicon has been updated tweeting a unique word every day for nearly a year and a half now.

Also contemporary is P ≠ NP and generating Panlexicon’s daily tweet is an example of both Polynomial (P) and Non-Polynomial (NP) Time operations. Panlexicon’s uniqueness comes from exploration and discovery; when thinking about how to bring Panlexicon to Twitter, ensuring those values came through lead to an interesting computational problem.

For every Word of the Day Panlexicon tweets, it also includes a number of related words. Any word of the day could have hundreds of related words, but the difficulty is in maximizing the number of related words to share in the tweet while still staying within Twitter’s 140 character limit. The more related words I can fit into the tweet, and the more diverse those words are, the more explorational it is and the more likely you will discover something interesting or fun by reading it.

Generating Panlexicon’s Word of the Day Twitter message is an NP-type problem. There are millions of potential solutions that stay within the 140 character limit, but only a few of them are optimal: fitting as many related words into the tweet as possible, while still having a diverse distribution of words lengths. There is no easy way to figure out those optimal solutions without a lot of computational muscle. At the same time checking if the tweet as a whole is less than 140 characters is an N-type problem: it’s just a simple matter of counting up the characters.

So that’s just one example of the mathematical problems Panlexicon faces. Of course, the algorithm I actually use to write Panlexicon’s Word of the Day on Twitter is by no means fully optimizing, but by keeping the broader computational context in mind, I can fake it reasonably well.