Wired Pursuits

How do you know spring has arrived? In most places the trees start to bud, flowers start to pop up, the weather warms, and the days get longer. Well here in Happy Valley (a.k.a. State College) we have our own unique way of recognizing the arrival of spring.

Here are the top 10 ways you know it’s spring in State College.

1. Red chairs pop up outside at Cafe 210.

2. Gaggles of college kids in matching t-shirts wondering around town (the annual bar tour).

3. The fragrant scent of cheap beer everywhere.

4. Blue Natty Light cans scattered across the lawn.

5. Red solo cups impaled on unsuspecting bushes.

6. Skin everywhere (guys in shorts, girls in sundresses) even when it’s 50 degrees and raining.

7. The slap-slap sound of flip-flops.

8. A sudden increase in desperate emails from students trying to figure out how to make up for missed assignments.

9. Mattresses, broken bookcases, and the odd papasan chair without a cushion left on the curb.

10. And finally, an eerie quite hush blankets the valley as the students leave for the summer.

After 2 years of PhD classes, research, writing, and reading of academic literature I’ve finally become used to the thick descriptions, multi-syllabic words, and long, long, run-on, very complex sentence structure sentences (as this sentence would illustrate).

Coming from business and writing for the web, academic writing was the antithesis of what I was used to (yes I just dangled my participle). But over time, I’ve come to feel comfortable with academic writing and have even somewhat adjusted my writing style. Who’d of thought? It’s a cultural thing. It’s not that one style is better than the other, they’re just different.

I have come across authors who are great at weaving an argument, moving the reader from one point to the other, and supporting their arguments with well-written prose. I have also come across those who like to throw in ridiculous words such as “finalizability” or “multiperspectival.”  I typically roll my eyes and say, “seriously who are you trying to impress?” But I’ve gotten used to academic writing (made up words and all) and I find that within academic literature there is a wide variety of styles just like within business writing.

I will likely always have a conversational tone to my writing, but some academic reviewers have said that it’s “refreshing.” When I first started reading academic literature I wasn’t sure that there was room for different styles. But as I’ve become more familiar with academic literature I am beginning to find my style. This will no doubt keep evolving, but I’m glad now that even with the thick descriptions and multi-syllabic words there is also room for individuality.

P.S. Speaking of academic language, if you’re a PhD student and aren’t aware of PHD comics (Piled Higher and Deeper) you need to check it out. Case in point…deciphering academese…


It appears as a culture we may have a very short digital memory. This morning I was listening to a story on NPR about “new” app books for children. “There’s a whole new way to read your kids to sleep these days” the story begins. It goes on to describe eBooks that read to your kids, highlight words as they are spoken, include animation, and “interactive features” where kids can touch a picture to hear what it is or see it animate and even hear the book in a different language.

I agree that this is a cool idea. Actually back 1989 when this concept first emerged it was cool too. I guess my surprise at the story was how this concept was being portrayed as novel. These eBooks are really “something entirely different” the story continues.

Sure the touch component and portability that comes with iPads is new. That certainly makes these books more accessible, but the concept of interactive books for children that are designed to help them learn to read and interact with characters and objects on the page isn’t. Back in the day they were called “living books.”

One of my kid’s favorite was “Just Grandma and Me” but there were many to choose from.  These living books (CD-ROMs) were totally engaging and even had little hidden fun thing the kids could look for. Of course she used a mouse and by today’s standards an ancient bulky desktop computer (complete with upgraded graphics card I might add). I have to admit that sometimes I just wanted to play with them myself.

I find it interesting that the iPad is being viewed as an entirely new medium. It is revolutionary in terms of mobility and the gestural interface, but we need to give credit to the really smart instructional designers, graphic artists, and programmers who came before and truly conceived of “something entirely different.” Not to mention the fact these people were working with many more constraints in terms of computing, graphic output, and programming tools.

I think I’ll call my daughter and ask her if she remembers these books. My guess is she will.

Title: Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

Author: Steven Johnson

Pub Date: 2010

Excellent look at ideation and the development of ideas over time. Both theoretical and practical.

Key to Johnson’s discussion is the concept of the “adjacent possible.” Simply put, like ideas tend to cluster together. When you bring different clusters together you benefit from ideas in adjacent groups. Ideas bleed into adjacent  groups, or spillover, and generate new ideas.

Johnson also debunks the notion of the “eureka moment.” Instead, Johnson shows that new innovative ideas are often born of long held hunches. Those hunches that ruminate in the back of your mind for weeks, months, and even years.

According to Johnson, “the secret to organizational inspiration is to build information networks that allow hunches to persist and disperse and recombine.” By creating high density liquid networks, organizations make is easier for innovation to happen.

But don’t take my word for it, hear Johnson describe where good ideas come from in his own words.

Part of the reason I decided to go back to get my PhD was to study how social media was changing how businesses connect with customers and build brands. I’m currently focusing on “crowdsourcing.” Crowdsourcing is basically an open call to the “crowd” to participate in an activity typically completed by employees or paid consultant/contractor.

There are tons of different types of crowdsourcing sites and researchers are only beginning to examine the different uses of the crowd.  I wrote a post about the crowdsourcing site eBird a while back. Here’s another example of a crowdsourced site. This one for crowdsourced software development.

TopCoder.com connects companies with programmers in the crowd to collectively build complex programs.

Here’s how it works:

  • Clients specify requirements, timelines, and budgets and the crowd competes to see who can produce the best code in the allotted timeframe.
  • Qualified reviewers evaluate weekly submissions, scores are posted for everyone to see, and a winner is selected.
  • After all modules are complete, a new contest is held to assemble the modules into the final program.
  • Winners are paid a pre-defined fee and coders in second place receive half the amount of the winner.
  • Winners turn over code (and all rights to it) to the paying company.

You’d think that throwing out a programming challenge to an undefined group of people without set standards or guidelines would result in pretty “iffy” code. But, what’s interesting is that TopCoder code actually exceeds the industry standard for quality. TopCoder reports an average of .98 errors per 1000 lines of code, compared to the industry average of 6 per 1000.

TopCoder manages to create complex programs in less time, at less cost, and at a higher quality than typical of internal development teams. Is this the end of internal software development teams?

I ran across this new saying at a panel discussion I was on regarding teaching with technology. Got me thinking. Has Google replaced thinking? Has Twitter replaced speaking?

I don’t think so. I think it’s more a comment on the impact the Internet and social media is having on our culture. Both positive and negative. We now have new ways of learning about new topics and verifying facts.

But with all the user generated content on the web, how do we ensure the accuracy of what we’re reading? Studies on Wikipedia have shown it is as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica. But what about other sources? Do sites referenced by a Google search provide us with accurate information?

There used to also be another saying, “If it’s printed in the newspaper it must be true.” Is society transferring that (potentially unknowingly) to the Internet?

Just finished my first year as a PhD student at Penn State. Being a student is quite a different lifestyle than running a business. In some ways more hectic, but in many less so because I can focus mostly on my studies. So with one year down (and at least 2 to go) here are some lessons learned for anyone trying to jump back in to academia:

  • Re-train your brain. Academic literature is quite “thick.” It’s full of multi-syllabic words (I really believe that some are totally made up). Anyway, it took about 3 months to switch gears in terms of being able to quickly read and comprehend academic literature. Reading a lot before I came was key to being able to dive in once classes started and not have to reread the same sentence 3 times.
  • Understand the structure of academic papers. Learning how to quickly pull out the salient points of a research article is a very helpful skill especially when you have 100’s of pages to read each week, are writing lit reviews, or are looking for articles to support your current research projects. Abstracts, lit review sections, and discussions can be scanned first to see if the paper is relevant. If so, then go back and read the details.
  • Write it down or you’ll forget it. OK, no age jokes. But seriously, once you turn on your brain again, you’ll have a million thoughts and ideas related to your field of research. Keep a notebook or electronic file of ideas and write them down as you have them. When you’re writing papers or looking for inspiration for research topics, going back and re-reading your thoughts is not only helpful in completing assignments, but it is also a reminder of what you’re really interested in.
  • Don’t forget why you’re here. At times I feel like a moth in a light bulb factory – I’m attracted to everything. Every topic seems amazing. You can easily get distracted. Take the first year to explore different things, but towards the end of the year, start honing in on what you need to do to accomplish your end-goal (and what you’re really interested in as mentioned above).
  • Talk to everyone. As a CEO I hesitated to ask other’s advice and learn from those who had “been there, done that.” Taking the time to talk to both students and faculty is a great way to open up the possibilities for potential research and learning opportunities. You’ll never know if the person sitting next to you in class is a wiz at quantitative analysis if you don’t strike up a conversation.
  • Age can be an asset. Having years of experience in corporate America has been a great asset. If you think about school like it’s one great big client project, you’ll be more organized and less stressed.
  • Beer, summer, and friends are still hard to resist. Passing a bar on a warm sunny day with a ton of people sitting outside and drinking beer is tempting no matter what age you are.  Sometimes you just have to give in and join in.
  • There will be days you’ll wonder if you made a mistake. When you make a huge lifestyle change, some days you’ll wake up in the middle of the night and think, “What have I done?” In talking with others who’ve made lifestyle changes later in life, it’s helpful to hear that this is to be expected. Just take 2 deep breaths and let it pass (or go get a beer).

No, I don’t mean crowdsourcing is “for the birds,” as in worthless. I literally mean crowdsourcing for birds. Here’s an interesting application of turning to the crowd to generate data – bird data.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society have joined together to leverage the collective productivity of the crowd to accomplish a task they would never be able to do on their own. They have created the online site eBird.org.

eBird enlists the help of bird watchers across North America to collect and document the presence of specific bird species. Using the eBird site, birders can report sightings and access the latest data on bird populations across the western hemisphere.

By leveraging the interests of the crowd and providing the ability for them to easily contribute to a shared cause, site sponsors are now able to accurately track bird populations more quickly and economically than they could with in-house staff. In 2006, more than 4.3 million observations were submitted by bird watchers across the country.

Interestingly, the site doesn’t have any collaborative tools where birders can talk to each other, but it doesn’t appear to need them to generate a sense of community.

If you know of other sites that leverage the crowd to collect data, please let me know.

Just watched a commercial for Domino’s pizza that made think about the impact of social media and online consumer comments on corporations. The commercial went something like this:

  • Domino’s holds an old fashioned, face-to-face, videotaped focus group.
  • A number of individuals in the focus group express their displeasure at Domino’s pizza – they basically say it sucks.
  • Domino’s reworks their entire pizza to address customer issues.
  • They go back to each person in the focus group (supposedly surprising them) and ask them their opinion of the new Domino’s pizza.

What’s interesting is that the commercial highlights the fact that Domino’s is responding to consumer criticism. Domino’s is making sure that everyone knows they are responsive. In fact, they have a whole site dedicated to their “Pizza Turnaround Documentary.

Years ago (prior to online social media) corporations would have just made the change and come out with a “new and improved” campaign.  I believe this new, “I’m listening” approach is a product of the new social world and the power that online social technology affords consumers.

Sure consumers have let their views be known to corporations and friends before, but nothing has been as powerful as the Internet for letting others know what you think. Corporations are recognizing that airing your dirty laundry is good for credibility and business.

Kudos to Domino’s for listening. And, kudos to social media for making them.

Title: Enterprise 2.0: New Collaborative Tools for your Organization’s Toughest Challenges

Author: Andrew McAfee (not the security guy)

Pub Date: 2009, Harvard Business Press

This is not another “2.0” fluff book. McAfee’s book is a great overview of the changing competitive landscape and the role Web 2.0 tools can play in helping enterprises stay competitive. How? Mostly by helping enterprises become more innovative within and outside their corporate walls.

Corporations can no longer rely on inside R&D and product development teams as the only means of innovation. Instead, if they want to remain competitive, they must reach out to employees throughout the enterprise, as well as vendors, customers, and even competitors. McAfee believes (and I agree) that enterprises who use new collaborative Web 2.0 tools to facilitate innovation inside and outside their enterprises will be more successful than those who don’t.

Using real examples along with current research findings McAfee outlines the potential and benefits of Web 2.0 tools for innovation within large and small enterprises.

Some tidbits:

  • “Enterprise 2.0…allows good new business ideas to emerge from anywhere and spread organically, rather than being developed at the center and imposed from the top down.”
  • “I have yet to come across any true horror stories – scenarios that make me question whether the risks associated with deploying [Web 2.0 tools] actually do outweigh the benefits.”
  • “I do not advocate that decision makers should ask for quantitative ROI analyses, either before approving and Enterprise 2.0 effort or to assess its progress.” A controversial statement to be sure, but McAfee makes a compelling argument for this stance.

Best piece of advice:

“Enterprise 2.0 is about abandoning the assumption that unilateral control is the best way to achieve desired outcomes, and instead trusting in people’s ability to interact productively without constant supervision from above.”

Want to hear more?

You can keep up with McAfee here:

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