Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Hello, World

After a 66.6 month hiatus, here is another post!

This week I met Jacob Hess. With Living Room Conversations, he invites Americans to rediscover the joys of civil discourse. (See also National Coalition for Dialog and Deliberation.) With All of Life, he asks us to consider public-health-themed approaches to mental health.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2015 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

What does leadership look like? By Vaclav Havel

After reading my recent response to her question, "What does leadership look like in a healthy network," Claire Reinelt referred me to Vaclav Havel, leader of the Velvet Revolution (which brought a peaceful end to Communist rule in Czechoslovakia 20 years ago). In Fall 2009, the International Leadership Association (ILA) held its annual conference in Prague and awarded its Distinguished Leader Award to Havel. He accepted the award and welcomed the conference with these words about leadership (translated from Czech) :
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to greet your conference most warmly and thank you for the award I am to receive from you. I think it is splendid that this conference is taking place in Prague -- not simply because it honors and publicizes our capital city, but also because of the topic of your conference at a time when are truly in need of good leaders. Your conference can be an asset to its host country and provide some lessons.

You have approached me as a leader although I don't know whether I am a particularly typical one. And I am somewhat reticent about being labeled one. But if I try to step back from myself and reflect on this topic, then I do have after all one particular insight to share, namely, that people don't become central persons by their own decision; it is life that lures them and creates them. It doesn't require any particular leadership habits or style. A leader isn't someone who shouts or arouses fear in others, but rather someone that people need to have near them and feel at their backs.

I have one personal recollection. At a certain moment during our peaceful revolution, I was already very tired and exhausted from all the endless speculations, decisions, speech-writing and thinking up new things, and so I escaped for a couple of days to a secret location -- a friend's studio -- where I reflected on my coming speeches and tried to relax. Interestingly, I suddenly started to be missed at the Civic Forum, which was then the focus of all the revolutionary events. I was missed not because there was a specific job or task that I had to do without fail or one that I and only I could do. There was nothing that could not be dealt with without me, and yet I was missed. I was missed as a special kind of background support, the sort that we take into account and that we think about, one that in some way helps us to act and not become confused. Without my having realized it, or desired it, it strikes me that in that sense I was able to play the role of a central figure. I find it amazing, because I am the last person to consider myself to have charisma. However, since I have been invited to talk on this topic, I thought I would share this experience of mine with you.

Apart from all other abilities and skills, leaders should also have trust in their coworkers. They should radiate calm, and they should truly be a background support that others can sense, one that is important to them and gives them energy.

Thank you for your attention. I wish your conference every success.
A video of Havel's speech is here. Another transcription of the speech is hosted by ILA here.

Compare Havel's remarks to Verse 17 of the Tao Te Ching (expanding on the passage I quoted last time):

When the Master governs, the people
Are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

If you don't trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn't talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
The people say, "Amazing:
We did it, all by ourselves!"
--Stephen Mitchell (trans 1988)
Thanks, Claire, for illuminating my Taoist quotes on leadership with such a timely example.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2010 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

What does leadership look like?

The Leadership Learning Community is hosting an interesting conversation on network leadership. As part of that dialogue, Claire Reinelt put to me the question, "What does leadership look like in a healthy network?"

In response, I turn to The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu. This ancient Chinese book of wisdom has inspired many translators to describe leaders and leadership of healthy networks. A few examples are below.

The best leader is one whose existence is barely known by the people.
True Persons do not offer words lightly.
When their task is accomplished and their work is completed,
The people say, "It happened to us naturally."
--Tolbert McCarroll (trans 1982)

When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists.
The Master doesn't talk, he acts.
When his work is done, the people say,
"Amazing: we did it all by ourselves!"
--Stephen Mitchell (trans 1988)

The "very highest" by those below is just known to exist.
He takes his time, oh, as he weighs his words carefully.
And, when success is had and the task accomplished,
The common folk all say, "We just live naturally."
--Richard John Lynn (trans 1999)

To know Tao alone without trace of your own existence is the highest.
The great ruler speaks little and his words are priceless.
He works without self-interest and leaves no trace.
When all is finished, the people say, "It happened by itself."
--Jonathan Star (trans 2001)

The very highest is barely known by men.
When actions are performed
Without unnecessary speech,
People say, "We did it!"
--Gia-Fu Feng (trans 1972)

BTW, this is not the first time the Tao Te Ching has graced these pages.
  • See here for Taoist perspective on the spread of information.
  • See here and here for Taoist perspective on naming and organizing things.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2010 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Organizational and network leadership

Many thanks to the Leadership Learning Community for honoring me with the monthly member spotlight in their newsletter published today.

The same newsletter features Claire Reinelt's article, "How is network leadership different from organizational leadership." She shares a chart from the Monitor Institute that breaks it down like so:

Organizational Leadership Network Leadership
Position, authority Role, behavior
Individual Collective
Control Facilitation
Directive Emergent
Transactional Relational, connected
Top-down Bottom-up

Here's what is meaningful to me in this table:
  • Network leadership emerges and dissolves in accordance with its environment (emergent facilitation).
  • Organizational leadership sustains itself with a force distinct from its environment (directive control).
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2010 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Web science, Webwhompers

I have just unveiled Webwhompers, which bears the fruit of four years of my teaching Web science at Boston University. The site features a few interests of mine:
  • A solid layman's introduction to Web science, focusing on the intersection of mathematics, sociology, and the Web as it is used and built by regular people. It is all presented as an online textbook you can read here.
  • A case study in educational methodology. Unlike the online textbook, which is meant to be read, the rest of Webwhompers is meant to be experienced. It provides the online portion of my answer to the question, "What can 70 non-technical college students do together in 12 weeks that will result in their learning as much as possible about the Web?"
The course mission statement puts it this way:

Technology is often created by "experts" and then used by "regular people." Webwhompers celebrates the "Web builder": a regular person who creates his own Web technology.

Sometimes it helps to distinguish between "regular people" who use technology and "experts" who create technology. For example, a regular person might want a home stereo; he pays experts to create hi-fi technology for him. In other cases, regular people create technology without even considering asking for expert help—for example, making a snowball.

Much of the Web technology that regular people want is within their power to create, just like a snowball. Webwhompers seeks to unleash the technical creativity of the regular person: By highlighting Web building resources, by bringing together aspiring Web builders, by providing expert guidance when necessary, and by encouraging regular people to try on the idea that they can create their own Web technology.

The course overview puts it this way:

Our course introduces Web science. It has no prerequisites and has been used by non-technical undergraduates at Boston University since 2006. Our curriculum is guided by the following passage adapted from "Web Science: An Interdisciplinary Approach to understanding the Web," by James Hendler, Nigel Shadbolt, Wendy Hall, and Tim Berners-Lee:
Web science, an emerging interdisciplinary field, takes the Web as its primary object of study. This study incorporates both the social interactions enabled by the Web's design and the applications that support them.

The Web is often studied at the micro scale, as an infrastructure of protocols, programming languages, and applications. However, it is the interaction of human beings creating, linking, and consuming information that generates the Web's behavior as emergent properties at the macro scale. These properties often generate surprising properties that require new analytic methods to be understood.

For example, when Mosaic, the first popular Web browser, was released publicly in 1992, the number of users quickly grew by several orders of magnitude, with more than a million downloads in the first year. The wide deployment of Mosaic led to a need for a way to find relevant material on the growing Web, and thus search became an important application, and later an industry, in its own right. The enormous success of search engines has inevitably yielded techniques to game the algorithms (an unexpected result) to improve search rank, leading, in turn, to the development of better search technologies to defeat the gaming. More recent macro-scale examples include photo-sharing on Flickr, video-uploading on YouTube, and social-networking sites like mySpace and Facebook.

The essence of Web science is to understand how to design systems to produce the effects we want. The best we can do today is design and build in the micro, hoping for the best; but how do we know if we've built in the right functionality to ensure the desired macro-scale effects? How do we predict other side effects and the emergent properties of the macro? Further, as the success or failure of a particular Web technology may involve aspects of social interaction among users, understanding the Web requires more than a simple analysis of technological issues but also of the social dynamic of perhaps millions of users.

Given the breadth of the Web and its inherently multi-user (social) nature, its science is necessarily interdisciplinary, involving at least mathematics, computer science, sociology, psychology, and economics.

Four important themes of Web Science are
  • Micro: an individual acts
  • Macro: the world responds (or not) to an individual's action
  • Synthetic: something is created to produce a desired result
  • Analytic: laws are stated to explain observed phenomena

We focus on these themes as they apply to Web builders -- people who contribute links and other content to the Web:

An individual builds a Web
site to produce a desired result.
(We do not speak
to this quadrant.)

"The world" builds a Web site
to produce a desired result
Laws are stated to explain
large-scale Web phenomena.

Some Web builders consider themselves Web developers; others consider themselves bloggers; others merely post an occasional comment on someone else's blog or discussion forum. We say "Web builder" to encompass the full spectrum of people who contribute links and other content to the Web.

Our lab curriculum provides an informal hands-on approach to the task of building a Web site. Our Search and Share pages help Web builders leverage collectively engineered resources (such as WordPress). The formal chapters of the Study page (which you are now reading) explain large scale Web phenomena; they also explain the Amazon recommendation algorithm and the Google PageRank algorithm.

The sociology, psychology, and economics of this course follow Duncan Watts' Six Degrees, which we recommend as a narrative companion to our own material. Our complete suggested reading list is below.

Online safety

Protecting yourself from evildoers

Privacy, trust, and ownership


Basic mathematical foundations of networks:

Set Theory

  • Sets
  • Explicit Notation for Sets
  • Cardinality
  • Subsets
  • Venn Diagrams
  • Union and Intersection
  • Ordered Lists
  • Implicit Notation for Sets
  • Logical Expressions
  • Compound expressions with "or"
  • Compound expressions with "and"
  • Union and intersection defined formally
  • Similarity of Sets

Graph Theory

  • Graphs
  • Undirected and Directed
  • Neighborhood and Degree
  • Density and Average Degree
  • Paths
  • Paths in undirected graphs defined formally
  • Paths in directed graphs
  • Length
  • Distance

See also Facebook and Touchgraph

Network Structure

Hubs, clusters, and other basic structural features of the Web:

Network Structure

  • Connected: a word of many meanings
  • Induced Subgraphs
  • "Connected" defined formally
  • Connected graphs and connected components
  • Hubs
  • Clusters
  • Defining clusters, part one: connected components
  • Defining clusters, part two: cliques
  • Defining clusters, part three

See also:

Network Dynamics

How randomness, homophily, and cumulative advantage shape the Web:

Network Dynamics

  • Limitations of traditional graph theory
  • Introduction to network dynamics
  • Three models of dynamic graphs
  • Random graphs
  • Demonstration of random graph dynamics
  • Random graph algorithm
  • Clusters and homophily
  • Triadic closure
  • Triadic closure algorithm
  • Hubs and cumulative advantage
  • Preferential attachment algorithm

See also:

All the above are summarized in the following table:

Random graphs
Real-world phenomenon explained by model
Giant component forms quickly when |E| ≅ |V|.
Clusters emerge, providing "table of contents" overview.
Hubs emerge, indicating popularity and/or influence.
Web sites
Clusty, iBoogie, Grokker
Google et al
Sociological force
Cumulative advantage
Mathematical model
Random graph algorithm
Triadic closure algorithm
Preferential attachment algorithm
Variables, Probability, and Scale-Free Networks

Understanding that the Web is a scale-free network requires some probability theory:

Variables and Probability

  • Variables in mathematics
  • Variables in algorithms
  • Random variables
  • Discrete vs. continuous variables
  • Probability distributions
  • Degree distributions

General discussion of scale-free networks:

  • Six Degrees Chapter 4, pp 101-114
  • From previous chapter on Network Dynamics
    • Hubs and cumulative advantage
    • Preferential attachment algorithm
Information and Computation

Applying fundamental concepts of computer science to the Web

Information and computation

  • Information, computation, and algorithms
  • Summation: an example of what computation is
  • HTML: an example of what computation is not
  • Computing distance, part one: Information diffusion
  • Computing distance, part two: Example
  • Computing distance, part three: Algorithm

Examples of information diffusion on the Web:

See also:

Collaborative Filtering

How to compute personalized recommendations:

Collaborative Filtering

  • "Expert opinions" without the experts
  • Delicious: example of CF
  • Bookmarks: content of Delicious
  • Tuples: content of CF
  • Bipartite graphs: structure of CF
  • Structural equivalence: computation of CF
  • Delicious: algorithmic summary
  • The four steps of collaborative filtering
The Long Tail

Niches and blockbusters in the world of Web commerce:

The Long Tail

  • Macro-analytic view of collaborative filtering
  • Power law revisited
  • Niches, megahits, and the neglected middle
  • Macro-analytic view of the long tail
  • Macro view of Web programming

See also:

  • The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson. Wired, October 2004.
  • Going Long, by John Cassidy. The New Yorker, July 2006.
  • Six Degrees Chapter 7, pp 207-215: Information Externalities & Market Externalities
Influence in Networks

How to compute the influence of a Web page:

Influence in Networks

  • Popularity, influence, and centrality
  • Introduction to PageRank
  • NetRank: a simplified version of PageRank
  • Normalization and convergence
  • The NetRank algorithm
  • Dividing by outdegree: the NR* formula
  • The PageRank formula
  • The damping factor: PageRank as probability

See also PageRank Explained by Phil Craven

Competition and Cooperation

What happens when Web builders seek to increase their influence?

Games: Competition and Cooperation

  • Dynamics of popularity and influence
  • PageRank competition
  • Doing the right thing
  • Mutually assured construction
  • Authority, reciprocity, reputation
  • Game theory
  • Winners' dilemma

See also

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2009 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Notable roles in living systems

Measuring and mapping networks can help us understand a system holistically.

With that in mind, I paused a week ago to read an obituary in the NY Times: "Lawrence B. Slobodkin, Pioneering Ecologist, Dies at 81." Curious to see what had made Slobodkin a pioneer in his own systems-oriented field, I read on and discovered his most famous paper. Published in 1960 as "Community Structure, Population Control and Competition," the paper's four pages contain a grand overview of how terrestrial ecosystems work, and is still widely discussed today.

Slobodkin and his co-authors present these distinct roles in the terrestrial ecosystem:
  • fossil fuels
  • sunlight
  • producers (e.g., plants)
  • decomposers
  • herbivores
  • carnivores
They then tackle the overarching question: for each role above, what is the critical factor that limits its growth? For example, in which roles are peers competing for scarce resources, and in which roles are populations controlled not by scarce resources but by predation?

Somehow, I am convinced that these roles map in a meaningful way more recent natural systems such as the world economy or American healthcare. Which parts of these systems correspond to which of the above roles in the terrestrial biosphere? Any ideas, anyone?

One thing that surprised me about Slobodkin's map of the biosphere was its early and explicit inclusion of fossil fuels. This inclusion makes a lot more sense to me now that I am reading (coincidentally) Michael Pollan's Ominivore's Dilemma, which also speaks to a holistic view of the terrestrial biosphere. One of the darker themes of the book is that human desire for productivity leads people to feed plants with fossil fuels instead of sunlight.

The same day Slobodkin's obituary was published, the NY Times also featured this headline: "Emphasis on growth is called misguided," reporting a paper commissioned by Nicolas Sarkozy and written by a pair of Nobel-laureate economists.

It's a lot to absorb. But strikes me as relevant to those of us interested in metrics that pertain to well-being.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2009 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Interesting Webinar 9/14: Leadership for a New Era

The wonderful Claire Reinelt recently shared this with me:

Leadership for a New Era

We invite ALL members of the leadership development community to join a free introductory webinar to the Leadership for a New Era (LNE) initiative on September 14th at 12:30 EDT (9:30 PDT). LNE is a collaborative learning initiative developed by the Leadership Learning Community (LLC), a nonprofit organization focused on connecting organizations and individuals in the leadership development field with a commitment to social equity. Through LNE we are establishing partnerships (such as these) to influence our current leadership development thinking and practice, and to promote a shift from a model of leadership focused on individual skills and attributes to a model of leadership that is inclusive, rooted in community, networked, and action-oriented. For additional information please visit the LNE website:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2009 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.