Small Successes Early: Metaphor & Fable


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This post is an extension to the Pattern —   Small Successes Early — and trials the addition of two more sections to the traditional form of a Pattern: Metaphor and Fable.


(This section is a departure from the traditional form of Patterns. It’s intent is to show how the same general principles that are embodied in the pattern also apply in other domains).

Life on earth, according to current estimates, has been around for 4.75 billion years. Evolution has had a long time to “learn” effective ways to do things. Have you ever seen an oak tree decide to migrate to a new place in the forest? Have you noticed it getting grumpy and yanking itself up by the roots and walking 30 meters to richer soil or closer to a stream and stabbing its roots back into the dirt in order to settle in its new place? (I mean apart from Tolkien’s Ents?) No, and neither have I. What does an oak tree do? It puts some energy into making acorns. Each acorn costs the tree (a tiny bit) in terms of water, soil nutrients, and sugar that it made from photosynthesis in its leaves. But it does not bet the farm on a better place. Some acorns will be scattered by squirrels onto new and better ground. If the conditions are just right the acorn will germinate and send up a small shoot and send down a primary root. Over time that acorn may grow into a mighty oak. Small successes early. Similar strategies are taken by other plants whether they propagate by runners, by seeds, or by spores. Animals typically also “start small.”

What can we learn from human practices that have evolved over millennia? For example, people have been building things for a long time. What are the practices around making a new building? People don’t just dig into a huge building project. They draw up plans; they discuss it; they typically build small scale models. If they see no problems with these models, they begin construction on the real thing. We think of these plans and models as being ways to coordinate the work and so they are. But they also serve a critical social purpose. Various stakeholders can look at the plans and models and question various decisions before there is a huge sunk cost.


What do people do when they want to put on a stage play? They don’t typically write a play and then immediately spend a huge amount of money advertising it, building scenery, making costumes and then sell tickets for the Broadway opening. No. People write a play and then do a “reading” with a small group of people. Many issues get ironed out. Eventually, people may cast the play and have people rehearse. Again, they need not do this with full costumes, make-up, and scenery. Instead, they “work out the kinks” in the play, occasionally changing lines, but very often changing the manner in which lines are said. In later stages, the blocking or lighting may change. Eventually, people have what are called “dress rehearsals” to make sure everything is working right. The producers want to insure that the scenery doesn’t fall down; that the costumes don’t rip; that people know their lines. In many cases, people open off-Broadway to give them a further chance for improvement before a Broadway opening with its potential for roasting by drama critics.

One of the longest running continuous institutions is the Catholic Church. Would you like to be elected Pope? Good luck with that. The Pope isn’t chosen by an open lottery or elected by the general populace who pick anyone they like. If you want to be Pope, you have to first pass through all sorts of “tests” to prove yourself as a Catholic; then, prove yourself as a Priest; after a long successful career, you may be eventually become a Bishop. Many professions that have had a long history developed similar though perhaps less elaborate hierarchies based on expertise and experience. They start with small successes. If you can handle lower level duties successfully, you move up the hierarchy from apprentice, to journeyman to master.

So, when it comes to biology, which has had billions of years of evolution, the tendency is overwhelmingly to use “Small Successes Early” and when it comes to human cultural evolution of roles and large scale processes that have been around for thousands of years, people use “Small Successes Early.” It is only some modern business managers who feel there is no need for such prudence because, after all, they are smart enough to foresee all consequences and therefore have no need for “Small Successes Early.”


(This section is another addition and departure from the form of a typical Pattern. It tries to encapsulate the basic idea of the Pattern into a fable similar to those of Aesop).


Rarin’ Rabbit hated the farmers who kept chasing him and his brethren from the gardens. The whole hutch spent as much energy going from their warren to the garden and getting chased back as they did from the occasional tasty morsel they managed to steal.

One bright day, Rarin’ Rabbit happened upon a dry creek bed filled with clover, purslane, and plantain. He immediately went back to the warren and convinced all his fellow rabbits to move their warren into the sides of the dry creek bed. Now, all they had to do for a great meal was step outside their front door! No farmers chasing them! It really did seem as though Rarin’ Rabbit had led his entire tribe to the promised land!

Rarin’ Rabbit grew immensely popular. One hot and humid day in late summer, Rarin’ Rabbit and his compatriots were munching on some wild roses that grew on the sides of the arroyo  when they heard thunder in the distant hills. Some of the rabbits got nervous and began wondering if the rain drops would come down on them. Some suggested perhaps that it was prudent to stop snacking and head back to the shelter of their warren. “Nonsense!” Rarin’ Rabbit protested. “There’s no rain here! Let’s keep eating till we’re as big as elephants! You have to dream greatly if you want to succeed greatly!” Most of the rabbits stayed for Rarin’ Rabbit was indeed quite popular — right up until the flash flood came hurtling down the canyon sweeping away Rarin’ Rabbit, all his companions, and the rabbit warren. Every last one drowned.


The moral of the story is: “Dream greatly. But test out your great dreams by first trying to find small successes early.”

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Small Successes Early


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This is the third “Pattern” in a proposed “Socio-technical Pattern Language” that aims to capture best practices in collaboration and coordination at various levels of organization from having a civil society to having small groups work in ways that are: 1) enjoyable in the moment, 2) productive in terms of the end-product, and 3) build skills in the participants. The notions of “Patterns” a “Pattern Language” are described in more detail in the first of this series, “Special Spaces and Wonderful Places.” The idea for the pattern, Small Successes Early, crystalized from reading DeMarco & Lister’s excellent book, Peopleware.

Small Successes Early. 

Author, reviewer and revision dates:

Created by John C. Thomas, December 2001.

Reviewed in early 2002 by Alison Lee and Catalina Danis.

Revised and extended, January, 2018.


Start Small.


Many problems in a modern industrialized society require very large teams of relative strangers to work together cooperatively in order to design and build an adequate system or solution or to solve the overall problem. Yet, because of the sense of urgency and artificial “deadlines,” in many settings, people fail to take the time to learn to trust one another as well as to learn one another’s strengths and weaknesses and preferred styles of working. Plunging a large group of strangers immediately into a complex task often results in non-productive jockeying for position, failure, blaming, finger-pointing, etc. Therefore, insure that the team or community first undertakes a task that is likely to bring some small success before engaging in a complex effort.


A complex undertaking often requires the interaction of many people with various backgrounds, skills, and temperaments. Often, whether in an industrial setting, a community building effort, or in political life, many of these people have not worked together before. The group wants to get started and wants to be successful. Although their diversity is a potential source of strength, at first, there is likely to be natural confusion about how to proceed because people will have different experiences about the best way to organize and proceed.

As the pace of change in society increases, a greater and greater proportion of the work that people do cannot be done in a routine or top-down way. Such a “command and control” style can work well under some circumstances; for example, when the solution is knowable before starting and everyone can be counted on to know their exact function and to be motivated toward an outcome agreed upon by all. Even in such extreme cases, it can still be worthwhile for people to learn about each other before attempting a larger effort. Most teams, even when hierarchically controlled and doing repetitive tasks, will improve over time as they gain experience with each other. In complex tasks with emergent solutions, the effect of practice will be even greater.


  • Problems are often too complex for all aspects to be addressed simultaneously.
  • If a problem is understood, it is logically better to deal with the hardest constraints first.
  • The structure of complex problems often becomes more clear as people try to solve the problem.
  • A part of any complex problem solving process requiring more than one person is the interaction and relationship among the people.
  • People in a new team need to learn about each other’s skills, working styles, and trustworthiness.
  • When people get frustrated because of non-success, they tend to blame each other.
  • As people work toward a goal, the goal tends to become viewed as more valuable and therefore people are willing to work harder to reach it.


Therefore, when bringing new teams or organizations together, it is useful to begin with a small success. In this way, people begin to learn about each other and trust each other. People learn more about the nature of the problem domain. This makes tackling more difficult problems later relatively easier.


CHI Workshop On HCI for Development Began with Map-Making


At the kick-off to a new software development project, rather than having the people be invited to “attend” an event that is “thrown” for them, which might typically include a mind-numbing series of powerpoint presentations from executives about how much money the company will earn if the project is successful, instead, encourage the workers themselves to organize a party, cook-out, pot-luck, song-fest, or storytelling event among themselves. In the process of organizing and carrying out this activity, they will learn about each other’s styles, learn about the trustworthiness of others, and be encouraged by having a success.

Alternatively, the team might simply work on one small aspect of the problem to be solved, provided it is something fairly clear that will result in “success” quickly. For instance, the team might initially work profitably on short presentations about the project, posters, or scenarios but not immediately jump into working on a systems design or a requirements document.

At a workshop on “Human-Computer Interaction for Development” held in Florence (at CHI 2007), we began by having the group make a “map of the world” (shown above) with stones and other materials at hands. Although everyone who signed up was presumably interested in the topic, people were mainly strangers from many parts of the world and had not worked together before. We not only jointly created the map but then had people engage in simple tasks that made use of the map; e.g., stand somewhere close to where you were born; stand somewhere you’d really like to visit but never have; stand somewhere representing a wonderful experience. In an earlier workshop on “Cross-cultural issues in Human Computer Interaction” (CHI 1992 in Monterey), the workshop room was set up like a classroom so our first task was to work together to jointly re-arrange the furniture in the room into a kind of “circle.”


As people experience team success, they tend to view the others in the team more positively. Teamwork is often hard under the best of circumstances. In highly complex problems, when people come together from different cultures, backgrounds, or agendas, it often becomes so difficult as to seem impossible. Rather than having people simultaneously attempt to solve a complex problem and at the same time learn to work together as a team, it is often more effective to separate the otherwise tangled problems.

First, have the people solve a tractable problem where it is clear to everyone that they have a common agenda. A successful experience working together to solve that simple problem will help people learn each other’s styles, strengths, weaknesses and so on. With this knowledge and trust, they can now move on to try to solve more difficult problems.


The human factors psychologist James Welford was called in as a consultant to deal with what appeared to be a very large age effect. People over 35 were having a tremendous difficulty learning new hand weaves. The difficulty, as Welford discovered, was in having older people try to solve two tangled problems. On the one hand, it was hard for older workers to see the actual threads and second, it was hard to learn the weave patterns. What Welford did was introduce a short training segment with very large, quite visible cords. Once people had mastered the weave patterns with these large cords, they were then transferred to the much smaller production size. This eliminated the so-called “age effect” and in fact, both older and younger people learned much more effectively and efficiently.

In similar fashion, trying to solve a complex problem with virtual strangers, especially when there is reason to believe there may be a difference in agendas, is a “tangled problem.” Untangling the “getting to know people” aspect from the complex production or design task will help insure ultimate success.

Some care should be given to the task and setting. The “small successes early” task should allow some degree of give and take, some opportunity for expressive (not just instrumental) communication. People should have the opportunity and space for doing something creative, for sharing stories, for physical interaction. Ideally, it should either be somewhat task related, domain related, or be something nearly everyone enjoys (e.g., eating, playing music, dancing, hiking).



DeMarco, T. and Lister, T. ( 1999) Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. (2nd Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ. : Addison-Wesley.

Schuler, D. (2008). Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Thomas, J. C. (2012). Patterns for emergent global intelligence. In Creativity and Rationale: Enhancing Human Experience By Design J. Carroll (Ed.), New York: Springer.

Author Page on Amazon

Special Spaces & Wonderful Places

“Reality Check”


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This is the second in a series of blogs that present Patterns in a Socio-technical Pattern Language of best practices for collaboration and coordination in complex societies. I intend to organize these in multiple ways (e.g., type of goal; where in a typical development process the pattern is most applicable; how large a collection of people the pattern is most applicable to, etc.).  I am entering them in this blog in an order that reflects current events. For example, there seems to be a movement to deny reality outright and insist everyone simply believe what the leaders promulgate. This, to me, is outright evil. But even when people are acting with the best of intentions, it is natural to take short cuts. Those short cuts can make life seem more efficient in the short run, but it can also lead to serious issues in the longer term.

Reality Check

Author, reviewer and revision dates:

Created by John C. Thomas on 4 September, 2001

Revised, JCT, 17 December, 2001

Revised, JCT, 15 January, 2018



In developing complex systems, it is often expedient to develop feedback loops based on ersatz measures of what we are really interested in assessing and controlling. While this seems expedient in the short term, it often leads to serious problems and distortions, particularly in times of crisis or transition when the correlation between ersatz measures and actuality substantially drifts or even suddenly disconnects. Actions can be based on these measures or models of reality rather than on reality(or more complete measures) and result in negative consequences. The solution is to perform regular “reality checks” to insure that measures or indicators of reality continue to reflect that reality.


In developing complex systems, it is often expedient to develop feedback loops based on ersatz measures of what we are really interested in assessing and controlling. While this may seem expedient in the short term, it often leads to serious problems and distortions, particularly in times of crisis or transition when the correlation between ersatz measures and actuality substantially drifts or even suddenly disconnects. Actions can be based on these measures or models of reality rather than on reality. This can result in negative, even deadly, consequences.



Many problems were partly responsible for the disaster at the Three Mile Island. One crucial problem, in particular, arose from the design of a feedback loop. A switch was supposed to close a valve. Beside the switch was a light that was supposed to show that the valve was closed. In fact, rather than having the light go on as the result of actual feedback from the valve closure itself, the signal light was merely a collateral circuit to the switch. All it actually showed was that the switch had moved position (Wickens, 1984). Under normal operation; that is, when the valve was operating properly, these two events were perfectly correlated. At a critical point in the meltdown, however, the valve was not operating properly. Yet, the human operator believed that the valve was closed even though it had failed to close in reality. His resulting actions, taken on the basis of the assumption that the valve was closed, exacerbated the subsequent problems. My colleague, Scott Robertson, has recently posted an analysis of the recent error that resulted in the nuclear missile scare in Hawaii. (See link).

View story at

In running an application program several years ago, I was given a feedback message that a file was posted. In fact, it wasn’t. The programming team of the application, rather than checking to see whether the file was actually posted, merely relied on the completion of an internal loop.

In advertising campaigns, it is difficult to measure the impact on sales. Instead, companies typically measure the “recall” and “recognition” rates of ads. This may often be correlated with sales changes, but in some cases, the ad may be very memorable but give the customer a very negative impression of the company and decrease the chances of actually selling a product.

Historically, monarchs and dictators (and even would-be dictators) often surrounded themselves only with people who gave them good reports and support no matter how their decisions impacted the reality of their realm. Eventually, the performance of such people tends to deteriorate severely because their behavior is shaped by this ersatz feedback rather than by reality.


During the “oil crisis” in the seventies, oil companies relied on mathematical models of continually increasing demand. Year after year, for seven years, they relied on these models to predict demand despite the fact that, for all seven years, demand actually went down. The results are purported to have cost them tens of billions of dollars (Van der Heijden, 1996).

In some cases, the known existence of ersatz measures directly contributes to the destruction of the utility of these very measures. For example, if management decides the “easy way” to measure programmer productivity is “Lines Of Code,” once programmers discover this, the code base may grow quickly in terms of that measure, but not in terms of actual functionality.


In America @2018, many people view money as the only legitimate value of interest for countries, companies, or individuals. Measures such as the GDP and the stock market index are taken as adequate and complete measures of the economic well-being of the society. There is a sense that, since we spend the most on weapons and health care, we must perforce be the “safest” and “healthiest” nation on the planet. This is clearly not the case. Similarly, ads talk about a person’s “net worth” when what they are really talking about is merely a person’s net financial worth. “Worth” is not the same as “financial worth.”

A large research organization that I am familiar with used to have a large number of administrative assistants who helped arrange meetings, send in expense reports, and answer telephones. At some point, most of these administrative assistants were laid off and the tasks were now done by the researchers themselves who were typically not nearly so efficient at them. The researchers took at least as long to do them as had the administrative assistants. Accountants looked favorably at all the “money they had saved” because they could easily see that the line item for administrative assistants was far less costly than it had been. Not visible, of course, was the fact that the much more highly paid researchers were now doing the same work that had been done before by the administrative assistants, but they were doing it less efficiently and at a far higher cost.


* Organizations are often hierarchically decomposed and bureaucratic. Therefore, it is often simplest to communicate with those close to us in the hierarchy and to build systems that rely for their model of reality only on things within the immediate control span of our small part of the organization.

* While more comfortable to limit system design and development to those things within one’s own team or department, it is often precisely the work necessary to capture more reality-based measures that will reveal additional challenges and opportunities in business process coherence.

*A more direct measure of reality is often more time-consuming, more costly, or more difficult than the measure of something more proximal that is often highly correlated with those aspects of reality of real interest.

*It is likely to be exactly at times of crisis and transition that the correlation be-tween proximal ersatz measures and their referent in reality will be destroyed.

*It is likely to be exactly under times of crisis and transition that people will tend to simplify their cognitive models of the world and, among other things, forget that the proximal measure is only ersatz.



Whenever feasible, feedback should ideally be based on reality checks, not solely on ersatz measures. When this is too costly (as opposed to merely inconvenient or uncomfortable), then at least design systems so that the correlation between proximal measures and their referent in reality is double-checked periodically.



Rather than rely solely on a circle of politically minded advisors, Peter the Great disguised himself and checked out various situations in Russia in person.

As reported by Paula Underwood (who was the designated storyteller for her branch of the Iroquois), her ancestors at one point felled giant trees for long houses in the Pacific Northwest. Later, when the tribe lived in the “Great Plains”, there were no trees of that size. The tribe began to doubt the existence of trees as large as what their oral history portrayed. In order to check on this, one brave spent many years walking back to that area and seeing with his own eyes that there were indeed trees as tall as had been portrayed in the oral history and then returning to the tribe to report back.

Resulting Context:

Ideally, over time, people who actually double-check reality will come to better understand when and how these reality checks will be necessary. They may also invent methods of making a check-in closer to what is really of interest more convenient or cheaper.

Related Patterns:

System as a Whole

Convergent Measures

Drawing the Line

Who Speaks for Wolf

Known Uses:

Richard Feynman, during the Manhattan project, noticed that the bureaucracy was worried about the possibility of accidentally stockpiling a critical mass of uranium. To prevent this, each section chief was required to insure that their section did not have a critical mass. To insure this, each section chief instructed each sub-section chief to insure that their subsection didn’t have a critical mass and so on, down to the smallest level of the bureaucracy. Upon hearing this plan, Feynman observed that neutrons probably didn’t much care whose subsection they reported to!

In another incident reported by Feynman, various bureaucrats were each trying to prove that they had better security than their peers. In order to prove this, they escalated the buying of bigger and thicker safes. The bigger and thicker the safe, the more bureaucrats felt that they had made their secrets secure. Feynman discovered that more than half of the super-safe safes had been left with the factory installed combinations of 50-50-50 and were therefore trivially easy to break into!



Wickens, C. (1983). Engineering psychology and human performance. Columbus: Merrill, (p.1).

Van der Heijden, K. (1996). Scenarios: The art of strategic conversation. Chichester: Wiley.

Hutchings, E., Leighton, R., Feynman, R., and Hibbs, A. (1997). Surely, you’re joking Mr. Feynman. New York: Norton.

Underwood, P. (1993). The Walking People: A Native American oral history. San Anselmo, CA: Tribe of Two Press.


“Who Speaks for Wolf?”


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This is the first of many socio-technical “Patterns” in a socio-technical Pattern Language meant to encapsulate best practices for collaboration and coordination. The common “parts” of every Pattern are displayed below in bold. A brief discussion follows the Pattern.

Who Speaks for Wolf?

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas on December 17, 2001

A shorter version is included in Liberating Voices by Douglas Schuler.

A longer version was published as an IBM Research Report, 2002.

Reviewed by <John C. Thomas> on <January 9, 2018>

Revised by <John C. Thomas> on <January 9, 2018>



Engage all the Stakeholders


A lot of effort and thought goes into decision making and design. Nonetheless, it is often the case that bad decisions are made and bad designs conceived and implemented primarily because some critical and relevant perspective has not been brought to bear. This is especially often true if the relevant perspective is that of a stakeholder in the outcome. Therefore, make sure that every relevant stakeholder’s perspective is brought to bear early.


Problem solving or design that proceeds down the wrong path can be costly or impossible to correct later. As the inconvenience and cost of a major change in direction mount, cognitive dissonance makes it likely that the new information will be ignored or devalued so that continuance along the wrong path is likely.


Complex problems such as the construction of new social institutions or the design of complex interactive systems require that a multitude of viewpoints be brought to bear. Unfortunately, this is all too often not the case. One group builds a “solution” for another group without fulling understanding the culture, the user needs, the extreme cases, and so on. The result is often a “system” whether technical or social, that creates as many problems as it solves.

The inspiration for this pattern comes from a Native American story transcribed into English by Paula Underwood.

In brief, the story goes as follows. The tribe had as one of its members, a man who took it upon himself to learn all that he could about wolves. He became such an expert, that his fellow tribespeople called him “Wolf.” While Wolf and several other braves were out on a long hunting expedition, it became clear to the tribe that they would have to move to a new location. After various reconnaissance missions, a new site was selected and the tribe moved to the new location.

Shortly thereafter, it became clear that a mistake had been made. The new location was in the middle of the spring breeding ground of the wolves. The wolves were threatening the children and stealing the drying meat. Now, the tribe was faced with a hard decision. Should they move again? Should they post guards around the clock? Or, should they destroy the wolves? And, did they even want to be the sort of people who would kill off another species for their own convenience?

At last it was decided they would move to yet another new location. But as was their custom, they also asked themselves, “What did we learn from this? How can we prevent making such mistakes in the future.” Someone said, “Well, if Wolf would have been at our first council meeting, he would have prevented this mistake.”

“True enough,” they all agreed. “Therefore, from now on, whenever we meet to make a decision, we shall ask ourselves, ‘Who speaks for Wolf’ to remind us that someone must be capable and delegated to bring to bear the knowledge of any missing stakeholders.


  • Gaps in requirements are most cheaply repaired early in development; it is important for this and for reasons of acceptance (as well as ethics!) by all parties that all stakeholders have a say throughout any development or change process.
  • Logistical difficulties make the representation of all stakeholder groups at every meeting difficult.
  • A new social institution or design will be both better in quality and more easily accepted if all relevant parties have input. Once a wrong path is chosen, both social forces and individual cognitive dissonance make it difficult to begin over, change direction or retrace steps.


Provide a way to remind everyone of stakeholders who are not present. These could be procedural (certain Native Americans always ask, “Who Speaks for Wolf” to remind them) or visual or auditory with technological support.


In “A behavioral analysis of the Hobbit-Orcs problem,” I discovered that people find it difficult to solve a simple puzzle because it appears that they must “undo” progress that has already been made.

As a positive case, some groups make it a practice to “check in” at the beginning of any meeting to see whether any group members have an issue that they would like to have discussed. In “User Centered Design”, and “Contextual Design” methodologies, an attempt is made to get input from the intended users of the system early on in the design process.

In a negative case, we developed a system to help automate “intercept calls” for a telecommunications company. We tested the end users to make sure it was workable. When we went to install the system, however, we learned that the folks in charge of central offices, would not allow our software to be installed until we provided documentation in the same format that they were used to from AT&T. So, we redid all the documentation to put it into the AT&T format. At that point, our lawyers, however informed us that that format was “copyrighted” so we could not simply use it. In this case, although many stakeholders were consulted, we had left out two important constituencies. (Eventually, the system was deployed — the first in the US that incorporated speech recognition into an application on the Public Service Network.

Resulting Context:

When every stakeholder’s views are taken into account, the solution will be improved in quality and in addition, there will be less resistance to implementing the solution.


Much of the failure of “process re-engineering” can be attributed to the fact that “models” of the “is” process were developed based on some executive’s notion of how things were done rather than a study of how they were actually done or asking the people who actually did the work how they were done. A “should be” process was designed to be a more efficient version of the “is” process and then implementation was pushed down on workers. However, since the original “is” model was not based on reality, the “more efficient” solution often left out vital elements.

Technological and sociological “imperialism” provide many additional examples where the input of all the stakeholders is not taken into account. Of course, much of the history of the US government’s treatment of the Native Americans was an avoidance of truly including all the stakeholders.

A challenge in applying the “Who Speaks for Wolf” pattern is to judge honestly and correctly whether, indeed, someone does have the knowledge and delegation to “speak for Wolf.” If such a person is not present, we may do well to put off design or decision until such a person, or better, “Wolf” can be present.

Related Patterns: 

Radical Co-location (Provided all stakeholders are physically present in the radical co-location, this tends to insure that their input will be given at appropriate times).

Known Uses:

As a variant of this, a prototype creativity tool was been created at IBM Watson Research Center. The idea was to have a virtual “Board of Directors” consisting of famous people. When you have a problem to solve, you are supposed to be reminded of, and think about, how various people would approach this problem. Ask yourself, “What would Einstein have said?” “How would Gandhi have approached this problem?” And so on. The original prototype consisted of simple animations. Today’s technology would allow one to develop a raft of chat-bots instead.


Thomas, J. C. (1974). An analysis of behavior in the hobbits-orcs problem. Cognitive Psychology, 6(2), 257-269.

Thomas, J.C. (1996). The long-term social implications of new information technology. In R. Dholakia, N. Mundorf, & N. Dholakia (Eds.), New Infotainment Technologies in the Home: Demand Side Perspectives. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Thomas, J.C., Lee, A., & Danis, C (2002). “Who Speaks for Wolf?” IBM Research Report, RC-22644. Yorktown Heights, NY: IBM Corporation.

Thomas, J.C. (2003), Social aspects of gerontechnology.  In Impact of technology on successful aging N. Charness & K. Warner Schaie (Eds.). New York: Springer.

Underwood, Paula. (1983). Who speaks for Wolf: A Native American Learning Story. Georgetown TX (now San Anselmo, CA): A Tribe of Two Press.



I have personally found this pattern to extremely useful in a variety of social and business situations. In some ways, it seems like “common sense” to get the input of everyone touched by a decision. But we live in a very “hurried” society as I earlier examined in the Blog Post “Too Much.” I’ve seen many projects hurried through design and development without taking a sufficient look at the possible implications for various stakeholders. There is currently what I consider a reasonable concern over what the impact of AI will be. But other technologies on the horizon such as biotechnology and nanotechnology also need to be thought about. As we examined in a whole series of blog posts in the fall of 2017, social media have had huge unintended (and negative) consequences.

I’ve also been involved in “cross-cultural issues” in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and in how HCI impacts people and societies in other cultures. Even relatively simple technologies like dishwashers, microwaves, and cars often have considerable unanticipated social consequences. It is not only the “fair” thing to involve everyone who will be seriously impacted; it will ultimately result in faster progress with less strife.

I’m very interested in other people’s experiences relevant to this Pattern.


“Turing’s Nightmares” – scenarios of possible AI futures.

Special Spaces & Wonderful Places


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When you think back to your childhood, no matter how luxurious, dilapidated, or war-torn that  childhood might have been, I’m guessing that like me, you had some particular places that you loved. Perhaps they stayed secret to you; perhaps you shared only with one or two chums. Somehow, those specific places held a kind of magic for you as they did for me. I will just point out a few examples from my own childhood.

Grandpa’s basement, for instance, though dark and dank, held a printing press made of cast iron. Although he cautioned me not to play with it because, he insisted, it was not a plaything but an important tool, I nonetheless found opportunity to move the gigantic heavy four handled wheel, having first carefully noted the exact position in order to return it just as I had found it. In some way beyond my comprehension as a child, I knew this press was something magical. It was, after all, involved in printing. I recall years later seeing a picture of Benjamin Franklin with just such a printing press. And, even as a very young child, I knew that printing held great power. Beyond that, the object itself loomed and commandeered that entire corner of the basement. I knew it was heavy beyond imagining, and not just in the epistemological sense. I could judge the weight of the entire machine from how hard it was to turn the wheel which, though heavy, comprised only a small fraction of the entire press. Cast iron also has this magical texture which seems to inhale light out of the surrounding region like a giant beast. Perhaps best of all, and what appealed to the engineer in me, the machine’s form and function flowed beautifully together. Compare that with a modern automobile, for instance. What it actually does is largely hidden in the design. This goes along with branding, and advertising, and customer loyalty and so on. A modern car does not typically marry form and function nearly so nicely as did that printing press.


On the “side yard” of our house on North Firestone Boulevard, three tulips shot up every spring, so colorful and perfect, not to mention mysterious. Where did they come from every year? How could this rounded plant of petals have a three pointed star inside!? On more than one occasion, I caught sight of a butterfly feasting on the pollen within. This place was cool patly just because adults always seemed hell-bent on the next task or chore. So, while this tiny patch of ground technically belonged to the whole family, in fact, I’m the only one who enjoyed it for more than a casual glance. I smelled and touched and explored every vein in that tulip. I watched butterflies do their drunken dance and tried (and largely failed) to predict when and where they would next alight.


At David Hill Elementary School, the sandstone retaining wall provided another special place. With a lot of work, kids like me could turn sandstone into sand. And we did. With work, we even made tunnels. At one point, we stuffed a grasshopper into a tunnel, covered the entrance,  and watched for him until he eventually hopped out ten feet away! For a long time, none of the adults seemed to pay much attention to the fact that we were slowly but quite assuredly destroying the retaining wall which kept our school and its landscaping from falling into the playground below. Sadly, at some point, the gravely voice of the principal, which always seemed to be enveloped in the black death robes of a priest at a funeral, informed us that we were now forbidden to play in or on the wall.

When we moved to Ellet, these special places disappeared from consideration but were immediately replaced by a much grander array of them. Right behind our house lay a forest! That forest sported a spring of fresh water coming right out of the ground, two gigantic elm trees wrapped in thick hair cables of poison ivy vines, an oak with a swinging grape vine and a creek. Eventually, I came to know the special places of the creek where you could put in bark “boats” and have the longest races ad the places where you could cross with the least chance slipping on a loose stepping stone and dousing your entire body. Depending on the temperature, that might or might not be all that uncomfortable, but it would inevitably be followed by something that was definitely uncomfortable — being punished by your parents for getting your clothes all wet. Now, it must be said, that when I had done this terrible deed of getting my clothes all wet, the first thing they did with those clothes was to put them in the washer where, yes, they would get wet. Hmm. Part of what makes these some of these special places special is that they radiate event streams outward into your lives. And, the feeling or inspiration or information or decisions that come from these special places need not be confined there. We draw comfort from them, even if we know we will never visit them again.

We all know that some places “feel right” – there is something about them that seems mysterious, beautiful, awe-insipring, calming, or exotic. But what makes a place “good” or “special”? Partly it is individual experience, no doubt, but partly it is the environment itself. So what is it about form and texture and organization that makes a place special? That is an interesting question that seems to have intrigued Christopher Alexander as well. Alexander and a team of collaborators looked at places that “worked” from around the world. The result was a book called “A Pattern Language.” They formalized, to a large extent, intuitions of what makes a place “special”; what makes it “work.”



Each actual pattern is pretty elaborate, but I can give a few examples to illustrate the point. One of the Patterns is called “European Pub” which has activity around the edges and large tables. This helps people socialize. The activity around the edges gives people an excuse to circumnavigate the room. The large tables mean that there is room for “legitimate peripheral participation.” If I’m new in town, I can sit somewhat away from everyone but still within earshot. When someone says something I can relate to, I jump into the conversation. This arrangement is much more conducive to socialization than many American bars which feature stools all facing a TV. This does not encourage interaction.

Another Pattern points out that a small town near a big city should put its “center” placed eccentrically toward the city. This makes it more convenient for a larger number of commuters to stop at local stores on their way to the city and back.

These are both gross over-simplifications of the actual patterns, but I think they convey something of what is being aimed at. There is a belief that these patterns would generally “work” in any religious, cultural, geographic, or political context. These patterns are really meant to focus on the invariants across a large number of details. In that way, they make design problem solving more effective. You will be less likely, so goes the claim, to be exploring parts of the design space that are far removed from optimal if you think about things in terms of these patterns.

A “Pattern Language” purports to take a useful middle ground. The patterns are abstract enough to be widely useful but narrow enough not to be meaningless. A “Pattern” is the named solution to a recurring problem. A “Pattern Language” is a lattice or web of Patterns that largely covers a field. Christopher Alexander coined the term after he and his colleagues went around the world to see what “worked” in terms of city planning, house design, building design, neighborhood design, the building process and so on. I think nearly everyone will find “A Pattern Language” a fascinating book.

The impact of A Pattern Language, however, extends far beyond architecture and urban planning. People have found the concept of a “Pattern Language” useful in many other domains. Perhaps the best known such domain is in Object-Oriented Programming with the so-called “Gang of Four” authoring many of the original books on the subject. Other domains which have been addressed with “A Pattern Language” include pedagogy, human-computer interaction, change management, e-business, sustainability, and how society might evolve.

I became interested in Pattern Languages at least 20 years ago and have since co-organized and co-led a number of workshops on patterns in “Computer Human Interaction” as well as “Socio-technical Patterns” including working on patterns for “Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution” and chapter 19 in John Carroll’s book on design rationale, “Patterns for Emergent Global Intelligence.”


In 2017, I recounted in this blog  childhood memories and how they relate to what is happening in today’s world. To summarize briefly, we have great opportunities as a species but we are also in a train wreck of trouble! We seem trapped in a nightmare of a comic farce, but one which has tragic consequences of potentially epic proportions; e.g., atomic war or having the USA walk away from the Paris accords on climate change. Is anything to be done?


What I want to accomplish in the first half of 2018 is to generate interest in the beginnings of a socio-technical “Pattern Language” that can help us get back on track again. I’ll post some of the ones I know about, but I’d be very interested to work with people on other suggestions.  In most cases, even when I post patterns it will be the case that I did not “invent” the patterns from first principles or construct them myself. In the same way that Christopher Alexander and his team main observed what worked and only then attempted to codify generic best practices into a “Pattern Language,” I also found many of these from observation or reading other sources or both. For example, the patterns, “Who Speaks for Wolf?” and “The Iroquois Rule of Six” are not by any means my inventions. I learned about them from the works of Paula Underwood. She was the “designated storyteller” of her branch of the Iroquois and provided an English transcription of the oral history of that branch in The Walking People. Indeed, I have argued that the “Walking People” basically developed a kind of pattern language in their oral history.

A Pattern Language is a difficult business.  For maximum utility, each pattern has considerable thought behind it and is written into a specific form. In fact, at one CHI workshop, we developed an XML specification for patterns in Human Computer Interaction called (Pattern Language Markup Language) PLML (pronounced “pell mell”). I will not be quite this formal with the form of my patterns but will adhere as closely to it as practical. I do think that the form of the Patterns within a Pattern Language is important. Each of the parts serves a purpose and it is handy to know what role each part plays. For example, each Pattern has at least these parts: A Title,  (possibly subtitled), synonyms, a Version history, one or more Authors, an Abstract, a statement of the problem, a statement of the context in which the problem and solution arise and are appropriate, an analysis of the “Forces” at play, the Solution, Examples, the Resulting Context, Known Uses, Related Patterns, and References. For many people, having such a complex structure seems to be too much “baggage” but we must remember that design problems are themselves inherently complex. In addition to textual elements, the Patterns of Christopher Alexander include both photographic images to “set the mood” and, typically, at least one diagram to illustrate the general nature of the pattern.

The domain I am most interested in developing a Pattern Language for is perhaps most often labelled as a “Socio-technical Pattern Language.” These would be a collection of patterns that would help people cooperate, collaborate and solve problems together. Although the fabric and texture, perhaps even the scent, of endeavors would depend on culture, the field, current events and a host of other factors; however, the form of these solutions to recurring problems would remain roughly constant.

Next up: An Example. “Who Speaks for Wolf?”


Happy New Year!


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It’s not really the champagne or the fireworks that make New Year’s special.

Many people around the world, in their own time zones, celebrate New Year’s. Precisely when depends on where you live and to a large extent, the major religion in your area. Some people tend to celebrate in the Spring; others in the Autumn; many around the winter solstice; and a few traditional cultures celebrate the new year in the summer. Some of the traditional calendars are based on 12 lunar cycles which does not make a full year so their “New Year’s Day” shifts over time relative to the Gregorian calendar.

It’s easy to get lost in the details of the differences among traditions, cultures, and religions. But what I find remarkable about New Year’s is not the fact that there are differences across the world. What I find both remarkable and heartening is that many different cultures in many different countries have some kind of “New Year” celebration; that people across the globe recognize that time has a cyclical as well as a linear aspect; that people everywhere recognize the importance of new beginning and that special events are “marked” in some way and that these celebrations are shared by scores, thousands or millions of people across the planet.


What I find even more wonderful is that people across the globe are able to learn something about other people and cultures. Right now, at the beginning of 2018, there are some few extremely greedy people who want to play on your hate and fear of anyone and anything that is different. They want to enhance your ignorance and play on your negative emotions for one and only one reason — to cheat you out of your freedom and therefore your life. Make no mistake about it. There really are dangers in the world and for best results, you really do want protection from those dangers — protection for you and for your family. Some of those people who threaten you do speak different languages or do practice or profess different religions.  But some don’t. Some people who are threats may dress differently or eat different kinds of foods. But some don’t. Basically, all those people across the globe are very much like you. And, just like you, they too need to understand that some of their leaders are also trying to steal things away from them and in order to do that, they want to make their followers believe that you and your kind are the threats and dangers.

Chances are much greater than 50-50 that if you were suddenly set down in the middle of a completely different culture, you would eventually be accepted and even welcomed. Why? Because people are fundamentally similar. However, people “getting along” is not in everyone’s interest; it’s only in the interest of the vast majority of human beings on the planet. Those who have positions of power and no real leadership skills to help “grow the common pie” will instead try to arouse your feelings that other people are trying to steal your piece of pie. If you cede your freedom to such power brokers, they promise they will protect you from these “others” who are trying to steal your pie. Instead, it is these very people in power who are out to steal your pie and add it to their considerable stack of pies — more than they could ever possibly eat.


Here’s a secret though. The people who are inventing new pies; the people who are sowing wheat to make new flour for pies; the people growing the berries; the people actually baking pies — we are all very similar regardless of dress, language, religion, or customs. People in power are absolutely terrified that the rest of us will all discover the extent of the emperor’s nakedness and call it out for all to see. Those in power would hate to see a true meritocracy because they have very little skill when it comes to any aspect of actually making pies. By and large, their only skill is to make you fear that others are out to steal your pie. If everyone else becomes friends and colleagues across the globe, there is no more reason for the power-hungry to rule you.

Meanwhile, people across the planet collectively have a huge amount of power. In some places, there are still free elections and those can be one way to change the world and exercise your own power. But it is not the only way. Whatever wealth you have, you will have some choice about where to spend it. What if everyone rewarded companies that are ethical and punished companies that do unethical things by refusing to spend money on their product and services? What if people refuse to give up the hours of their lives for working for companies that act unethically? Would you be willing to take a 5% pay cut to pay for a company that believes “ethics” is not just a training exercise for underlings but also applies to the top executives of the company as well? How about 25%? Would you be willing to blow a whistle on corporate crime? Would you be willing to buy local product and support local services unless and until large multi-nationals behaved like good citizens? Are you willing to refuse further increases in productivity until there is a plan in place to share the gains in productivity between workers and those who own the companies? A world-wide or national strike would cause people to take notice and eventually change business practices.


Last year, I wrote a long series of blogs about some of the root causes of divisiveness in America — though much of it applies equally to other countries in the world. There can be changes to social media, for instance, that could make it more of a force for unity and good and less a force for maximizing advertising dollars. Yet, none of the three social media companies I use most: LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter have asked me (or, so far as I know, any other user or citizens in general) what I would like to see different about their policies, procedures, and principles. We don’t have to wait for them to ask though. We are their users and their customers. Right now, they mainly care about their advertisers because advertisers are very vocal about policies if it affects their pocketbooks. But you and I can be just as vocal about policies that impact our society as are the advertisers. Ultimately, the advertising dollars depend on you and I using these social media.

For instance, check out the “Terms of Service” for these social media. It’s not always clear what constitutes a violation, but it does seem very clear that these social media are free to use the content you created for their own profit and that includes any clever things you say, photos, videos and music tracks. On the other hand, if you post something that you don’t have legal rights to, you and you alone are responsible. The terms of service are not “negotiated” with you; they are a “take it or leave it” affair and they are aimed at protecting the company, not at protected our democracy or humanity in general.

But we can change that. We can collectively pressure social media to make changes that we feel are in the best interests of humanity. And this does not just apply to social media companies. It also applies to Walmart and Apple and Amazon and every other large multinational. We don’t have to be purely passive recipients of what others deem is the most profitable way for them to do business. We can change the commercial world so that products and services work better, are safer, and that the profits of productivity do not just accrue to owners but to workers as well. Yes, we can.

And that would indeed be a Happy New Year.

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The Blog in Review


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Year End Summary (2017) and Index of Peter S Ironwood Blog. (Several readers mentioned that the wordpress navigation structure may leave something to be desired. Hopefully, for some readers, the following index may be helpful). Many of these blog posts are not meant as the “final word” on these subjects. I am hoping people can use them as a “jumping off place” for conversation with their neighbors, students, and colleagues.

Trumpism is a New Religion. 

Astounded that more than 15 people voted for Trump, the year began with my attempts to understand my error(s). It was about this time that I saw more and more evidence that many Trump supporters were impervious to his most outrageous, incompatible, or nonsensical acts, tweets, and pronouncements. My explanation is that for some, Trumpism is really more of a religion than a political movement. This still seems correct to me. Others, have completely different reasons for voting for Trump. For some, for instance, I really think they have seen zero change in their lives regardless of who is President and they have seen promises never kept by both parties. As a result, for them, the President is seen as “Chief Entertainment Officer” and Trump provides plenty of that. In terms of a religion, Trumpism is much more compatible with the values inherent in modern day business than is Christianity. In essence, in fact, Christianity is incompatible with business values. So, it’s quite understandable that Trumpism has become popular.

The Crabs are Biting. 

The next blog post returns to a retrospective look at some of my childhood experiences and thoughts about how these experiences shed light on current events. In this case, I recount various “fishing” experiences and how seriously children think about the world. Are fish the only animals that can be caught with bait?

Parametric Recipes and American Democracy. 

A parametric recipe is my term for recipes that allow for a variety of ingredients. I like to make omelets, for instance. There are many different vegetables and cheeses that can be incorporated. The exact ingredients and proportions don’t matter. But there are things you would never want in any omelet – toxins, poisons, and things that simply make you sick to your stomach. Have we forgotten what is unacceptable in a democracy?

Big Zig-Zag Canyon. 

This post begins with a recounting of a hike on Mt. Hood, near Portland, Oregon (which coincidentally is one of my favorite cities). The post is about how one’s expectations can be wrong about just how hard things can get — over and over.

The Invisibility Cloak of Habit.

With experience we learn. That’s the good news. In some cases though, our previous experience leads us astray. In fact, in some cases, our previous experience just about blinds us to what is going on right before our eyes.

City Mouse and Country Mouse.

At least in the USA, I know that a spectrum of political opinions occurs everywhere but that one of the greatest correlates of differences is whether a person lives in a rural or urban area. I don’t believe one of these venues is, in every way, superior to the other, but it does seem that the different situations should logically lead to different values that work well in that venue.

Math Class: Who Are You?

It strikes me that part of what feeds pathological greed — and perhaps as well the greed that we all fall prey too — is partly the result of a serious misconception about who we are and our relationship to the rest of the living earth.  Here are some back of the envelope calculations to put things in a more reasonable perspective.

The Great Race to the Finish!

Every human activity has both an instrumental/extrinsic value and an experiential/intrinsic value. In most cases, doing something as quickly as possible reduces its intrinsic value. It may or may not increase its extrinsic value although the financial interest behind the “Captains of Industry” always assume it does. Most of us are in something of a hurry most of the time. Why? Does it really make our lives more pleasurable? And, where are we rushing to?


Our decisions have long-lasting, perhaps eternal, consequences. Even mechanical ripples last a long time, but another human can multiply the input given a hundred fold so that the effect of any action can increase over time. Individual decisions can actually impact the evolution of the species as well.

 Family Matters: Parts One, Two and Three.

A three part series exploring how the happenstance of our birthplace (over which we obviously have no control) has a huge and lasting influence on our lives.

Claude the Radioman.

Claude refers to a toy soldier whose function was communication. As a small child, it was my least favorite because it had no weapon. As an adult, I think he has the most powerful one of all.

Citizen Soldiers: Parts 1, 2, and 3. 

A three part series on the premise that, like it or not, we are all soldiers. Of course, it’s different to be in the actual military and be at a front. But, we are soldiers in the sense that we are at risk pretty much everywhere mainly from other human beings. We are soldiers as well in the sense that our actions are important determiners of the outcome. We need to be smart as well as loyal.

Pies on Offer: Rhubarb & Mincemeat.

Are you focused on grabbing the biggest piece of pie you can? Or, are you more interested in baking more pies and inventing new kinds of pies?

What if … ?

A speculation that in reality, Americans have much much more in common with each other than they think they do. The politicians and the media both have a vested interest in making people think they are farther apart on more issues than they really are.

If Only…

This is a work of “pure fiction” however — the protagonists and their “back stories” are true. This is a story that takes place in a nearby but parallel universe.

Only You…

An examination of our responsibilities and the impact of our actions.

You Fool!

A recounting of some of the many ways in which we humans are subject to being fooled.

Fool Me!

Mainly, this post focuses on the power of stories. There is an ethical difference, at least to me, between presenting a fascinating or inspiring story and presenting the same story as fact.

Me Too. 

This post is about the natural tendency of people to want to be part of a larger social action. Most people drive in stop-and-go traffic in a non-optimal way. This offers a better method.

Too Much!

Human productivity does not go up monotonically with increasing stress. Studies have been around for decades showing that people are more productive working 30 hours a week than 50. Why do so many companies then push for 50 or more hours a week?

Much Lost.

Why do we grieve at the loss of another? Why do we even get attached to objects?

Lost Horizons. 

Have we modern humans lost our ability to make decisions based on a very broad, very long-term look? Doesn’t it seem natural for every generation of every species to try to make life better for the next?

Horizons University. 

What would it be like to build a University that focused on expanding a person’s horizons in every dimension they would be interested in? What if it focused on finding, and formulating as well as solving problems using existing knowledge and procedures?

You Know. 

Which wolf do you feed? The “bad” wolf or the “good” wolf. Of course, sometimes, decisions involved complex trade-offs, but sometimes we “know” what the right thing to do is and instead do the convenient or selfish thing.

Know What? 

The first of a series of blogs that considers how various aspects of social media, combined with anonymity, not having face to face communication (with its abundant affordances), the concentration of much of the media control in a few very large multi-nationals, the filtering and bandwagon algorithms of social media, and other factors all conspire to further divide people.

Gold Standard.

Every age has its pluses and minuses. Some folks today seem to feel we’ve moved too far too fast and that we should “rewind” to a better time. Interesting, but there hasn’t been a better time. The world today is hugely complex and inter-dependent. That’s the way it is. If we try to obviate all that interdependence, we will not go back to 1950 or 1890 but back to 5000 BC. Instead, what can we do to encourage civility and to distinguish news versus fake news?

Standard Issue. 

What are some ways that social media could be changed to encourage greater civility?

Issue Resolution.

Perhaps the experience of others was different, but I learned very little in formal school classrooms about ways to resolve conflicts. Yet, much is known beyond simple compromise, using external authority or force of arms. This posts focuses on some of those with pointers to longer descriptions of the techniques.

Resolution: Create! 

This post encourages a more creative look at issue resolution. I believe that more progress can be made by people working together than by even a 10x increase in Facebook posts to convince everyone else that they are wrong.

Create Peace.

First of a series of blogs about the pros and cons of war and peace. Spoiler alert: war is a horrible option. We really need to get our act together to do better. People sometimes have trouble reaching agreement, but that process should be facilitate by diplomatic experts and leaders who are looking at the big picture. Some so-called “leaders” are intent on consolidating and extending their own power. Historically, that’s when power-hungry people declare war. Some might label such people SHRUGS – Super-Hyper Really Ultra Greed Snobs.


Where are we headed? Is there any hope? I would say yes though we are in dark times. The light will return, if not today or tomorrow, some day.


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Humanity finds itself in a new place. In evolutionary terms, we could say humanity suddenly finds itself in this new place. Life on earth, by best estimates is 4.75 billion years old. It’s easy to imagine, as a person, that the whole point of evolution is us. I don’t really see any reason to believe that. To the dolphin, deer, dog, dodo, and dinosaur, every one of their lives are every bit as precious to them as ours are to us. I do not even think humans are the “smartest” species on earth, at least, not in any absolute sense. We are the smartest in the directions of thought and behavior that humans find useful. So far as we know, we are the only species who has the information to know that our collective behavior can destroy us along with a lot of the other limbs on the giant, diverse tree of life and yet, here we still are, with atomic weapons, not pointed out defensively against invasions from outer space but pointed at other people on the planet. How could we possibly think we are the smartest species? Even if we avoid that kind of catastrophe, we still face dangers from over-polluting the planet, over-heating it, over-populating it, over-fishing and being over-hating. Indeed, this is nearly the darkest day in the darkest year. Is there reason to celebrate?

I think there is. In the blink of an eye, in evolutionary terms, we’ve managed to migrate across the entire planet. People live in tropical jungles, hot desserts, and in the frozen tundra. We’ve developed tools of thought and tools of trade and ways of dividing labor and communicating. And, now, although many people still do not have access, we have a communication network that spans the globe and we can communicate to some degree with people of different religions, cultures, languages, and experiences. We have vast networks of trade. We’ve come a long way.



Yes, there are a few greedy people who, like Voldemort, cannot or will not experience love or its benefits. Instead, they have convinced themselves that everyone is out to get as much as they can for themselves (or, if some people aren’t on that program, they’re just stupid, in the view of the greedy). In reality, only a few people are completely hooked on greed and power. They do not see other human beings as partners, or colleagues, or fellow explorers in this vast world before us — a world that still has billions of unfound discoveries. Indeed, we have even built machines to help us make new discoveries. And, if we don’t change trajectories, we may make far fewer discoveries than we might. Of course, it isn’t just the people completely hooked on greed that are accomplices in humanity’s direction toward greed. The alternative is to think quite consciously about our decisions in terms of who we invest in, what product we buy, how we talk with our neighbor, how we ourselves do business. We ourselves can make choices that move us toward greater cooperation rather than necessarily choosing only on the basis of immediate cost/benefit analyses. Then, and only then, can we turn the world to kindness and discovery.

Despite our many advances, we have yet, for instance, to have conquered cancer; we have yet to conquer war; we have yet to conquer hate and fear. You see how easily, in fact, the metaphors of war pervade our thinking. It is possible that we don’t need to “conquer” cancer, war, hate or fear. Maybe, we just need to let them go. Maybe if we understand these things sufficiently, they will dissipate. Maybe these four things all required quite different approaches from anything that has yet been tried, and possibly all require a different approach from each other. But my reflexive approach is to state this in terms of “conquering” – that is, winning over an enemy rather than winning over an enemy.



Perhaps, instead, the right approach to conquering cancer is not to “destroy” cancer cells but to re-integrate them into the society of the body. Perhaps they have been disillusioned that being part of the whole (body) is working for them. Maybe there is a way to “convince” them not to be cancer cells but to revert to what they were before cancer began.

Or, maybe we put something on an edge of the human body that has more of what the cancer cells “want” then anyplace within the body and let them “migrate” to the edge (and out of the human body — the “Pied Piper Approach”).

Or, perhaps, apart from pollution, a huge reason for cancer is that people are so busy so much of the time that they are not “noticing” teeny cancers within them. Perhaps people can be trained from birth to notice cancer cells and to send an overwhelming immune response before its too late. It sounds a bit absurd, but is it really? People can learn to “turn on” a single neuron in their brains with proper feedback. Is it really so far beyond the pale to imagine we could train ourselves to mount a targeted immune response?


Perhaps all of these approaches might work and perhaps none of these approaches would work. The point is, that we need not reflexively think that “armed conflict” and “destruction” are the only methods that work to change the world. Many biologists think that the “nucleus” of our cells as well as our “mitochondria” were originally different organisms that started living symbiotically inside our cells. Is it too much to imagine that we could some day control the process of cells mutating and do it for our benefit? It seems absurd and ridiculous from the perspective of our knowledge today. And, yet — what would have our common ancestors on the African Savannah have thought 1,000,000 years ago if we could have explained to them that someday we would have machines that fly us around the globe — and to the moon? Or, how would they have reacted to the idea that we would have a network allowing us to communicate around the globe; that we would build machines that enable us to look into the workings of cells or the far reaches of the galaxy; that we would build fantastically beautiful musical instruments and that we could share music and ideas and stories across this earth; or that many people in our world die from having too much to eat!? 

It is quite possible that a century from now, people will very seldom die from cancer — or any other disease. In a similar fashion, we may well be able to set aside, recommission, redesign, or simply let go of war, hate, and irrational fear.

But none of that will happen unless we collectively decide what we want to be when we grow up. Because, as a species, despite wonderful achievements, we are still adolescents, at best. There are many tyrants in the world. Tyrants, as I’ve explained in prior postings, hate love and hate the truth. They really need war for cover in order to stay in power. Love complicates things. It’s just too unpredictable for people who want to be in control of everything. People’s reactions to absolute power wielded without ethics are much more predictable. Under enough painful torture, anyone will say anything 99% of the time. Of course, nothing positive and growth oriented ever comes from hate and fear alone. Only love moves life forward. Only love creates a more beautiful earth for our descendants. Only love discovers new beginnings, offers new ideas and new approaches. Beyond love’s instrumental value, more importantly, a world run by love is a world that feels good most of the time while it is happening, moment to moment. Of course, even in a world run largely by love, you will stub your toe or lose a friend, but most of every day’s activities you spend doing something because you feel as though you are making a contribution to something beyond yourself.



On the other hand, in a world run largely by hate and fear, the momentary experience of almost everyone almost all of the time is miserable. You are basically snarling or sniveling with every communication. Naturally, even so, there will be moments of joy, but it will never be unmarred because joy will either fall prey to guilt, or even worse, spend so much resources defending against guilt that life will become gray and pointless. Every day, most of the time you are doing what you’re going because you feel as though you’ll be badly punished if you don’t.

Does it make any sense then, to have a society run by the very greediest people among us? What if the only reason they are so greedy is because they don’t experience the full spectrum of human emotion that the rest of us do? What if a huge part of their greed is actually specifically and quite consciously designing and demanding a society run by hate and fear?

Why? Because they themselves don’t feel love and they don’t want others to be able to in an unrestricted way either. They are jealous and the only way they see to avoid being faced with their own shortcomings is to reshape the world so that no-one can express love openly and fully. I am not talking only about restrictions on sexual partners. I am talking as well about artistic expression, a free press, scientific exploration, and education. Everything is subject to restriction in a dictatorial society. Love is the source of exploration. It cannot be fully functioning under a dictatorship.

And what about Christmas? What about the solstice? What about the light and the dark? I do believe we now live in much, much darker times than most people realize. We are, in one of three states: 1) we are like one of the beginning scenes of the Star Trek prequel where Kirk speeds a stolen car towards that he does not realize is a deadly chasm. At the last moment, he tries to skid sideways to a stop, leaps from the car, begins to totter over the side and holds on by his fingernails — then clambers back up. 2) we in the same scene but this time, our foot hits the door an inch to the left and we don’t quite make it. 3) we are like the road-runner cartoon character who has just run straight off a deadly cliff but his legs are still windmilling and for a short time — he appears to be running, and does not fall until he looks down and realizes he is no longer on solid ground.



Well, it’s Christmas Day for me. And, the winter solstice has passed. The darkness really is receding and the daylight is encroaching on that darkness, minute by minute. We humans have had some dire times before and gotten through them. That doesn’t prove we’ll survive this Age of Greed, but I think it possible, perhaps even likely. But we must put the brakes on now. We must jump very carefully. And we must hold on for dear life.

We must hold on to each other. We must hold on to ethics as something that matters. We must hold on to the thought that, ultimately, we are all in this together. We must hold on to the thought that we are much more alike than we are different regardless of what customs, clothes, and food we prefer. We must hold on to the realization that a few greedy people cannot really rule the world, unless we participate with our own greed, fear, and hate.

We can pull this off. Instead of being the despoilers of the planet, we will make it ever more beautiful. Eventually, we will be “in tune” again, with nature and each other. How precisely to make this happen isn’t clear and no two people would probably approach it precisely the same way. Nonetheless, if we work together as best we can, keep discussing our differences in a civil way, and make as many decisions as we possibly can with at least a thought to the greater good, we will make it.

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Merry Christmas.

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Love All.


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Love All. Hmm.

I don’t feel very loving toward people who are SHRUGS and pretending to be SHILLS, especially when they are using the trust we gave them as being public officials not to betray their country’s interest. Is there really a way to love all?

I think it is quite possible to love the totality of something without loving each and every part. A person might, for example, love their body but hate that big mole. They might really like their car but hate its squeaky rattle. They might love all of humanity yet hate so much of what one person does it is impossible to feel love for that part of it. At least I feel that way. I love the forest but hate deer flies, though it is a qualified hate. Once I’m back indoors, I don’t dwell on the fact that they’re still out there sucking blood from deer or hikers. There is a bit of humor and even admiration for the damned things. You would think it would be pretty easy for humans to outsmart them and yet…they are very hard to catch. The one trick I did develop was to wait till they landed on the back of my neck and then smack them quickly with my hand, stunning them. When they awoke, I would explain to them that if they didn’t immediately cease and desist, I would crush them. But they never responded so I crushed them anyway.

There are several aspects of love and one is understanding. They are not equivalent of course, but understanding seems good in any case. I can reach the point of trying to understand deer flies or SHRUGS. Beyond that, I cannot go.


Teddy Roosevelt is famously purported to have said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Let’s examine this a little further in the context of contemporary international relations. The United States is, or at least was until recently, the “world’s only remaining superpower.” That’s what we told ourselves. We certainly spend the most of any country on the military. Our military strength is also built on having a well-educated populace, superior technology, excellent training, and, considering that the military has a “military culture,” it is fact-based. After operations, initiatives, mistakes, successes, the military conducts “after action reviews.” In other words, there are mechanisms in place, to realize that human beings make errors and the important things are to try to avoid them and then to learn from them. The military, like much of American culture, strives to be a meritocracy.

How on earth does it make sense to “shout loudly and carry a teeny stick.”? But at least some of the SHRUGS seem hell-bent on just such a course. There is certainly a lot of “shout loudly” but isn’t there a promise to spend more on the military? Yes, but — superior military depends on many things besides money. It depends on having superior technology. Having superior technology depends on, among other things, attracting the best minds from around the world to a country they find attractive and accepting. Executive orders already made many people feel less welcome. This was followed by a Congressional-sponsored Theft Bill which made it virtually impossible for anyone but the richest to attend graduate school.


Strike One. Notice, I did not say the most able, or creative, or hardest working. No, the richest. Well, apart from the mind-numbing unfairness and transparent self-interest, it is a death sentence to the USA having a long term lead in biotechnology, computer science including cryptography and cybersecurity, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. Breakthroughs in any one of these fields could render our nuclear arms useless or worse (e.g., our systems “think” they are launching to other targets when in fact they are all aimed at other cities in the US). That’s Strike One.

Strike Two. And in every other branchlet of the executive, the message has gone out loud and clear that promotions and possibly even firings will depend more on loyalty and less on merit. These government agencies will necessarily be less effective and as the general quality of the career public servants plummets, the few remaining effective people will become more and more frustrated and also leave making the race to the bottom of quality all the faster. These other branches of the executive include many that have a direct impact on the quality of the military.


Strike Three Believe it or not, it matters what people feel they are fighting for. If all of what America “stands for” is unbridled greed so that more and more of the world’s resources can be funneled without objection into the pockets of the world’s richest, the soldiers don’t really care to go the extra mile. Why should they?

So the combination of these three factors: damaging science, making government inefficient, and destroying morale will weaken the military in its effectiveness but increase the chances of a world-destroying mistake.

So, yeah, I can’t quite get there yet with the “Love All.”

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Peace & Love 3: Shrugging off the SHRUGS


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It might seem as though the answer is easy and obvious. But I don’t think it is. It might be nice if the SHRUGS disappeared from the earth one day. Getting rid of them through violence however, is not a particularly good idea. Violence against individuals is no more effective than war. It may well be true that SHRUGS “deserve” to die. On the other hand, they exhibit a tendency that the vast majority of us have — to look out for ourselves first. Equally rare are those altruistic heroes who fall on a grenade to save their buddies. Most of us have both tendencies in us, but SHRUGS have completely killed within themselves any tendency to empathize or care about others. There may be inborn differences as to the balance of altruism and selfishness that we are born with. In addition, the way people are brought up probably also has a lot to do with how this balance plays out. People who experience unconditional love are more likely to grow up so that their natural connectedness to others prevails over greed, at least most of the time. Indeed, empirical studies show that people who are completely altruistic or completely greedy are rare. Most of us are somewhere in between and our behavior is much influenced by the situation that we find ourselves in, both in the short term and in the long term. That is why it is important, not only to raise children with unconditional love and teach them right from wrong, but also to have a society that encourages and rewards cooperative behavior over complete selfishness.

SHRUGS are, to a large extent, the product of being raised by other SHRUGS who will demean a child and try to dominate them in order to induce shame. The child grows up physically but not emotionally. They will in turn, tend to raise more SHRUGS and treat others, not as individual human beings with their own rights but as tools to be used with no more thought than you would care how a hammer “feels” when it hits a nail or how the nail “feels” when it is hit by a hammer. It is indeed, a very sad thing when a person (or even a dog or cat) is so mistreated that is lashes out whenever it can. SHRUGS need therapy; perhaps even love. But don’t expect to “fix” them. They also need to be contained. Your two year old might have a temper tantrum in the grocery store when they are denied a piece of candy they see. It is not a good idea to give in to them thereby reinforcing the display of immaturity. But it doesn’t mean you need to shame them, humiliate them, beat them, or stop loving them. But you are the adult. You need to make sure they understand that screaming, crying, and smacking anyone around is not going to result in their getting their way. The very worst thing to do is to tell them they can’t have the candy; let them continue their temper tantrum; and then finally give in. This teaches them that they can always get their way if they are persistent enough.


As the SHRUG gets older, they may find that they enjoy bullying other children regardless of whether they actually succeed in reaching any goal other than making the other person feel bad. This is much like a kind of “reverse empathy.” The more they make someone else feel bad, the better they feel. Sometimes people like this become skilled in athletics but never learn true sportsmanship. They never respect, but only disrespect their opponents. They never seem to understand that without a worthy opponent, there is literally no sport and no-one would pay to see them. On other occasions, the SHRUG may become a law enforcement officer. And, by the way, most police officers are not at all like this and actually want to help the public. A few, however, will enjoy beating the “truth” out of a suspect or forcing them to assume humiliating positions or actions, such as crawling. If the suspect fails to comply, they may be shot dead on the spot. Other SHRUGS will simply become accountants, sales people, or doctors. But they are not really all that interested in accounting, sales or doctoring. What they really want to do is move up the hierarchy so they can “lord it over others.” You seldom see a SHRUG working as a single stand-alone contractor, accountant, sales person, or doctor. If they do, they will have limited success because they will simply alienate their potential customers. Most people do not really like interacting with a SHRUG. A few people, however, like being dominated by another because it is clear what they are supposed to do; namely, whatever the SHRUG says. Giving in to a SHRUG simply makes them all the more SHRUGish and set in their ways. Nonetheless, in a society where a sense of fair play is very common and where love prevails, a SHRUG will not get to far unless they manage to become perceived as a SHILL by others. (The SHRUGS themselves always see themselves as SHILLS, but for the most part, others do not see them that way. Most people “see right through” most SHRUGS.



For people who judge others, not on the basis of actual behavior, but on the basis of superficial markers, however, SHRUGS may tend to be perceived as SHILLS. If a SHRUG is particularly popular, or beautiful, or athletic, or rich, or powerful, or wears extremely expensive clothes people who would like to have those things for themselves will tend to view the SHRUG as a SHILL. In times of war, we are often bend over backwards to perceive SHRUGS as SHILLS. But even in times of peace, it is possible, as explained below. Since truth is the first casualty of war, however, it is particularly in times of war that we may sometimes consider SHRUGS as SHILLS. Such folk often end up, for instance, arguing that torture is justified in order to find out vital truths to save the lives of “good people” at the expense of the pain of the “bad people.” Torture is actually quite effective, but not at getting at the truth. It is quite effective at getting people to say what you want them to say. This makes it especially valuable for SHRUGS trying to convince people that they are actually SHILLS. They will ensure that whoever is tortured will add evidence to the narrative that makes SHRUGS appear as SHILLS or even Heroes. In a similar vein, SHRUGS do not particularly care for the rule of law. In the same way that they believe that sweeping away all the chess pieces and declaring themselves the winner is just fine, they also believe sweeping away all sense of fair play and justice is just fine too.

Perpetrating violence and breaking the law in order to destroy SHRUGS is therefore, in effect, playing the same “game” as the SHRUGS. So, here is the crux of a dilemma. If you allow the SHRUG to have their way, they will simply take more and more over time and come more and more tyrannical over time. However, if you destroy the SHRUG by violence, you simply replace one SHRUG with another. Thus, the violent overthrow of the Czars in Russia led fairly quickly to Lenin and then to Stalin. The violent overthrow of the corrupt Chinese government that perpetuated vast inequality in China led to Mao. The French Revolution led, at least initially, to a bloodbath that went far beyond actual SHRUGS to anyone even associated with the so-called Noble class. Eventually, all of these regimes became more democratic though in varying degrees.


In the case of so-called Western Democracies, people must work to depose whatever SHRUGS are in power, not through violence, but through whatever legitimate channels still exist in that particular democracy. This is hard work and needs to be smart work as well. It involves communication, and it involves understanding. One must understand both the SHRUGS and their supporters. The grievances that underly their supporters must be addressed. That does not mean that if workers are convinced that the only way to insure that they get a good job is through misogyny or racism that everyone else gives in to misogyny or racism. But everyone needs to look beyond the misogyny and racism and understand the disappointment, failure and frustration that lead to these dehumanizing beliefs.

In short, if you try to take the quick path and unseat a SHRUG by violence and hatred, you’ll only succeed in spawning the conditions for even more SHRUGS to arise. It’s much like trying to fix a broken arm by amputation rather than setting the broken bone and allowing it to heal. Once again, the path to lasting peace and love is through the clever and judicious use of peace and love and not by war and hate, even if undertaken to ensure that the society be run in a just and cooperative way. A key component is to communicate fully and effectively.

SHRUGS can be voted out of political positions. This is an important power to exercise, but it is not your only one. You can choose how to spend your money. You can choose to whom you give your labor. You can choose which products you buy. You can choose what you say to your friends and family. You can model kind behavior. Once you think about it, just as there are millions of cells working together to shrug your shoulders, so too, millions of people working together can SHRUG off the SHRUGS.



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