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Gaming the Connections: from Sherlock H to Nada B

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — the game of Connect the Dots in play and practice ]

CIA's (now ret'd) Nada Bakos examines the Al Qaida board in the HBO docu, Manhunt


Manhunt, the HBO documentary, does what (not having been there and seen that at the time) appears to be a decent job of recreating some of the cognitive stratregies employed by CIA officers in the OBL hunt. The one I’m interested in here is the building of a “link chart” or cognitive map — law enforcement “evidence board” — the idea being (a) to note known connections visibly, and (b) to encourage the mind to make intuitive leaps that reveal previously unknown connections between nodes… or “dots”.

Sophisticated software does this sort of thing algorithmically with regard to (eg) network connections via phone-calls, but the human mind is still better than AI at some forms of pattern recognition, and that’s the aspect that interests me here.


For more on the cognitive significance of the link chart in Manhunt, see my post Jeff Jonas, Nada Bakos, Cindy Storer and Puzzles.


Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Sherlock lays out the way it works —


Okay, so one way to visualize connections is to make a fairly random collage of relevant photos, names, dates and places, and tie it together with links of string or ribbon. That’s the equivalent of what in HipBone games terms we’d call a “free-form” game, and it works well for the “divergent”, initial brainstorming phase of thought. But it does little to bottle its own energy, to focus down, to force the mind — in the no less powerful “convergent” phase — into perceiving even more links than occur spontaneously in building the link chart in question.

HipBone‘s preformatted boards take the cognitive process to that second stage. They work on one of the most powerful ingredients in creativity: constraint. Business writer Dave Gray of Communication Nation puts it like this:

Creativity is driven by constraints. When we have limited resources — even when the limits are artificial — creative thinking is enhanced. That’s because the fewer resources you have, the more you are forced to rely on your ingenuity.

But that premise doesn’t just hold true for business problem-solving — it’s at the heart of creative thinking at the Nobel level, too, in both arts and sciences. Consider mathematician Stanley Ulam, writing in his Adventures of a Mathematician:

When I was a boy I felt that the role of rhyme in poetry was to compel one to find the unobvious because of the necessity of finding a word which rhymes. This forces novel associations and almost guarantees deviations from routine chains or trains of thought. It becomes paradoxically a sort of automatic mechanism of originality…

Here’s how the poet TS Eliot puts it:

When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas.

A Hipbone Gameboard such as the Waterbird, Dartboard, or Said Symphony board is chosen precisely to challenge the mind with third, fourth and fifth rounds of “creative leaps” — thus adding both divergent and convergent cognitive styles to this form of graphical analysis.

That’s my point here — and a plug for HipBone-Sembl style thinking.


I can’t resist adding a couple of instances in which the meme of “connecting the dots” via a link chart or evidence board has crept from TV series that I enjoyed into the world of games — this first one based on the terrific French detective series, Engrenages, retitled Spirals for British consumption:

— and this one for fans of the US TV series, Breaking Bad:

Birthday Greetings to Online Forums and Community

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — history was minted here ]

Today is the fortieth birthday of Plato Notes — the “first permanent, general-purpose online conferencing system”, brainchild of my online friend David Woolley.


You can read Brian Dear‘s PLATO Notes released 40 years ago today for the general story, or David’s own PLATO: The Emergence of Online Community from 1991 — but best of all perhaps would be this video, which will give you a sense of the man as well as the relevant history —

— and historic this truly was.

Happy fortieth, David — and more thanks from so very many of us than I quite know how to express.

Book Mini-Review: Makers: the New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson 

This is a fun book  by the former editor-in-chief of WIRED , author of The Long Tail and the co-founder of 3D Robotics, Chris Anderson. Part pop culture, part tech-optimist futurism and all DIY business book, Anderson is preaching a revolution, one brought about by the intersection of 3D printing and open source “Maker movement” culture, that he believes will be bigger and more transformative to society than was the Web. One with the potential to change the “race to the bottom” economic logic of globalization by allowing manufacturing entrepreneurs to be smart, small, nimble and global by sharing bits and selling atoms.

Anderson writes:

Here’s the history of two decades of innovation in two sentences: The past ten years have been about discovering new ways to create, invent, and work together on the Web. The next ten years will be about applying those lessons to the real world.

This book is about the next ten years.

….Why? Because making things has gone digital: physical objects now begin as designs on screens, and those designs can be shared online as files…..once an industry goes digital in changes in profound ways, as we’ve seen in everything from retail to publishing. The biggest transformation, but in who’s doing it. Once things can be done on regular computers, they can be done by anyone. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing happening in manufacturing.

…..In short, the Maker Movement shares three characteristics,  all of which I’d argue are transformative:

1. People using digital desktop tools to create designs for new products and prototype them (“digital DIY”)

2. A cultural norm to share those designs and collaborate with others in online communities.

3. The use of common design file standards that allow anyone, if they desire, to send their designs to commercial manufacturing services to be produced in any number, just as easily as they can fabricate them on their desktop. This radically foreshortens the path from idea to entrepreneurship, just as the Web did in software, information, and content.

Nations whose entire strategy rests upon being the provider of cheapest labor per unit cost on all scales are going to be in jeopardy if local can innovate, customize and manufacture in near-real time response to customer demand. Creativity of designers and stigmergic /stochastic collaboration of communities rise in economic value relative to top-down, hierarchical production systems with long development lags and capital tied up betting on having large production runs.

Interesting, with potentially profound implications.

What eye and mind can reasonably absorb

Friday, August 24th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — visual thinking, graphical presentation, the magical number seven plus or minus two, human intelligence ]


click image to download pdf & see pp 12-13 for closer, full-size look

Got it? That’s part of a double-page spread from the University of Maryland’s START Program report for 2011:

The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism—better known as START – is a university-based research center committed to the scientific study of the causes and human consequences of terrorism in the United States and around the world.

Looking through the rest of the report, I’m tempted to say a snazzier, jazzier magazine I’ve seldom seen!


I maintain that’s far nicer to look at, but no more comprehensible than, this gorgeous and justly infamous power point slide:

click image for a closer, full size look

Got that one, too? That was a slide used to help GEN McChrystal understand that war he was fighting.


Watson and Crick introduced their 1953 paper in Nature, A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid, with these words:

We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.

No less witty is the opening of George A. Miller‘s only somewhat less celebrated paper three years later in The Psychological Review, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information:

My problem is that I have been persecuted by an integer. For seven years this number has followed me around, has intruded in my most private data, and has assaulted me from the pages of our most public journals. This number assumes a variety of disguises, being sometimes a little larger and sometimes a little smaller than usual, but never changing so much as to be unrecognizable. The persistence with which this number plagues me is far more than a random accident. There is, to quote a famous senator, a design behind it, some pattern governing its appearances. Either there really is something unusual about the number or else I am suffering from delusions of persecution.

The gist of Miller’s piece (and by gist I explicitly mean the always misleading broad strokes version) is that we can usually manage to hold five to nine chunks of thought in mind at any given time, but that if we want to understand more than that, we need to “chunk” our thoughts in such a way that we think of “seven plus or minus two” items (Miller’s “magical number”) but can peer into any one of them and see it divided into lesser portions which we can also comprehend, in what I’ll call a tree > trunk > limb > branch > twig > leaf arrangement — always remembering that a tree may be part of a forest, and that sometimes ee just can’t see the forest for the trees…

Miller explains chunking succinctly thus:

It seems probable that even memorization can be studied in these terms. The process of memorizing may be simply the formation of chunks, or groups of items that go together, until there are few enough chunks so that we can recall all the items.

Neat, hunh? And he concludes, with another pleasant touch of wit:

And finally, what about the magical number seven? What about the seven wonders of the world, the seven seas, the seven deadly sins, the seven daughters of Atlas in the Pleiades, the seven ages of man, the seven levels of hell, the seven primary colors, the seven notes of the musical scale, and the seven days of the week? What about the seven-point rating scale, the seven categories for absolute judgment, the seven objects in the span of attention, and the seven digits in the span of immediate memory? For the present I propose to withhold judgment. Perhaps there is something deep and profound behind all these sevens, something just calling out for us to discover it. But I suspect that it is only a pernicious, Pythagorean coincidence.


Of course there are high-node graphics programs like Starlight Analytics (from Future Point Systems via Battelle and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) which allow you to sample one of a cluster of very similar nodes, or to see where the outliers are and zero in on them…

or to focus in on only those nodes connected to one particular name or place on a map:

But can you find a file you’re looking for any faster by locating it somewhere in this graphic…

than by using your usual search methods?

So okay, high level analytics like Starlight may be useful for analysts who have the costly software and time to pinpoint and track and zoom and annotate and comprehend, become alarmed or calmed, and respond appropriately.

But people reading that glossy report from the START program? People trying to brief GEN McChrystal from a powerpoint slide?

Seven. Seven plus or minus is your number.


Once more, with feeling.

The moral of this tale is that graphical presentations of ideas to explain complexities should generally feature seven plus or minus two nodes, maximum, for eye and mind to consider at any one time, with perhaps an additional three or four that the eye can glide across to, forming a second chunk — thus delivering a maximum of 13 nodes without zooming in.

for the direct communication of major drivers in a complex situation — seven nodes plus or minus two is your optimal number.


Ah — but see, I forgot to show you the rest of that first image:

You can handle grasping the import of an image two parts, surely, can’t you?

Okay then — if you can, perhaps you can help me out…

One bead for a rosary

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — one bead from NASA for the glass bead game as rosary ]

photo credit: Norman Kuring, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Consider her sacred, treat her with care.

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