Here’s my talk “Better Project Management with Knowledge Graphs” from the Benelux PMI Fair 2021.
And can render the slides from my public nodebook graph.
Roaming through contexts with Roam (series)
I shared previously a short description of what is SASSY Architecture and a more detailed deck here. This is a shorter but more recent deck from my talk at the IRMUK EA Conference in 2019.
(if the slidedeck doesn’t appear, you may need to refresh)
Ivo Velitchkov | July 2nd 2021
Linked Data is a universal approach for naming, shaping, and giving meaning to data, using open standards. It was meant to be the second big information revolution after the world wide web. It was supposed to complement the web of documents with the web of data so that humans and machines can use the Internet as if it is a single database while enjoying the benefits of decentralisation1This is the balance between autonomy and cohesion – essential for any socio-technical system..
Today on the web we have 1495 linked open datasets, according to the LOD cloud collection. Some among them like Uniprot and Wikidata are really big in volume, usage, and impact. But that number also means that today, 15 years after the advent of Linked Data, LOD datasets are less than 0.005% of all publicly known datasets. And even if we add to that the number the growing amount of structured data encoded as JSON-LD and RDFa in the HTML, the large majority of published data is still not available in a self-descriptive format and is not linked.
That’s in the open web. Inside enterprises, we keep wasting billions attempting to integrate data and pay the accumulated technical debt, only to find ourselves with new creditors. We bridge silos with bridges that turn into new silos, ever more expensive. The use of new technologies makes the new solutions appear different and that helps us forget that similar approaches in the past failed to bring lasting improvement. We keep developing information systems that are not open to changes. Now we build digital twins, still using hyper-local identifiers, so they are more like lifeless dolls.
Linked Enterprise Data can reduce that waste and dissolve many of the problems of the mainstream (and new-stream!) approaches by simply creating self-descriptive enterprise knowledge graphs, decoupled from the applications, not relying on them to interpret the data, not having a rigid structure based on historical requirements but open to accommodate whatever comes next.
Yet, Linked Enterprise Data, just like Linked Open Data, is still marginal.
Why is that so? And what can be done about it?
I believe there are five reasons for that. I explained them in my talk at the ENDORSE conference the recording of which you’ll find near the end of this article. I was curious how Linked Data professionals will rate them and also what have I missed out on. So I made a small survey. My aim wasn’t to gather a very large sample, but rather to have the opinion of the qualified minority. And indeed most respondents had over 7 years of experience with Linked Data and semantic technologies. Here’s how my findings got ranked from one to five:
It was early November 2020. I escaped for a long weekend to Tenerife where I played tennis for the last time of what turned out to be a 5-month ban back in Belgium. It was over 20°C and sunny, two more things I was going to miss in the long winter of the second lockdown.
I’d been working since dawn on a big terrace overlooking the ocean.
It was a magical moment to see how the ocean emerged out of nothing, made all the more special by its synchronicity with my thoughts. I was writing a chapter note on George Spencer-Brown (GSB) for Essential Balances which was to be published a few weeks later. For it was GSB who showed mathematically how everything can come into being out of nothing.
All I teach is the consequences of there being nothing. The perennial mistake of western philosophers has been to suppose, with no justification whatever, that nothing cannot have any consequences. On the contrary: not only it can: it must. And one of the consequences of there being nothing is the inevitable appearance of “all this”.
Now, a few hours later, I was immersed in work when I got interrupted by some birds’ cries. I lifted my eyes from the screen of my laptop and saw a couple of colourful parakeets that have just alighted in the palm tree in front of the terrace. But they did not hold my attention long. What did, was not an exotic island bird but a boring city one that landed on the corner cap of the railing and posed in a way making the flat cap look like a pedestal. It was then when I remembered I started writing a series of posts about Roam, published two of them, the next one to write being about self-reference. I took a photo of the bird, noted in Roam what it looked like to me, and posted this tweet:
Indeed it’s high time for another Roamantic entry. This is the third instalment in a series of five. The first part was about what is Roam like. The second was about the powerful concept of distinction, based on George Spencer-Brown’s Laws of Form. And it was the rigorous study of distinction that led George-Spencer brown embrace what was treated as an error by the western1That wasn’t the case in the East. See for example the logical system Catuṣkoṭi. philosophers and mathematicians before him − self-reference. Continue reading
The balance between autonomy and cohesion is one of the three balances, essential for everything living and social. It’s fascinating to watch when there is a shift both in the balance itself and in the way it is achieved. The times of Coronavirus are exceptionally rich in new ways of maintaining social cohesion.
There are various factors and forces for cohesion. They can be distinguished once in terms of origin and influence, and then for different system scales – individual, organization, society. This way, there are nine categories: individual factors for individual cohesion, individual factors for organizational cohesion, individual factors for the cohesion of society, then organizational factors for individual cohesion, organizational factors for organizational cohesion and so on for all nine combinations.
Some factors work in similar ways at different scales, others not. For example, the need for safety, the need to reduce uncertainty, and the need to increase self-esteem, are individual facts for both organizational and societal cohesion.
Most ways to increase cohesion reduce autonomy. This is the case, for example, when social cohesion is achieved through any form of centralization of decision-making power.
But there can be an increase in cohesion without reducing autonomy. In fact, it can even do the opposite, enable it. Such is the case with the world wide web. On the web, everyone is free to say whatever they want (autonomy) but it can be consumed only if it is shared using some agreed standards (cohesion). These standards ensure a uniform way to publish, identify, and access documents on the web. They enable individuals and companies to invent various web applications (autonomy), but again, these applications could only be widely used if they conform to the agreed standards (cohesion). Of course, such a system is not immune to tumours where the tight integration of data and services can bring a new form of centralization, using the scale of the internet to achieve its internal balance between autonomy and cohesion (example: Facebook) at the expense of that of the web.
If we imagine the dynamics of autonomy and cohesion as a seesaw, we can tell the relative degree of autonomy and cohesion with the respective angles A and C between the beam and the fulcrum base. The balance is achieved when the beam is horizontal.
When the angle C is the same as angle A, there is balance, and when it is smaller, there is disbalance caused by too much cohesion.
But not always.
In keeping with the seesaw metaphor, a crisis situation can be imagined as a slope. The next drawing shows the seesaw at the time of crisis when the angle C must be smaller than A to keep the beam is horizontal, in balance.
In time of crisis, maintaining the balance requires either more cohesion or a new kind of cohesion to compensate for the loss of normal cohesion.
Metaphorum was established in 2003 as an NGO to develop Stafford Beer’s legacy and has organized a series of management cybernetics conferences and workshops over the years.
I attended three Metaphorum conferences so far.
In Hull, 2015, I shared ideas on how some of the findings of the enactive school of cognitive science can enrich the Viable System Model (VSM). Only about 8 minutes of the talk were recorded but the full Prezi and a PDF export of the frames are available.
The next Metaphorum event I attended was in Düsseldorf, 2018. The conference theme was Re-designing Freedom which was also embodied in the conference design, emphasizing different forms of self-organization1For example, this was the first Metaphorum conference to use BarCamp. and held at the premises of a company proud with their agile work hacks.
At both conferences, I tried to point to a promising new area of research. In Hull, it was towards enactivism as a rich source to draw from and fill some of the gaps in the VSM. In Düsseldorf, my invitation was to travel to another uncharted territory. There I tried to put and start answering the question “What can Social Systems Theory bring to the VSM?” You can check out the slides here.
The last day of the conference was a short hacked version of team synthegrity that worked pretty well. My topic was “Burst the VSM bubble” and in the following year, I demonstrated one way to do that.
The 2019 conference took place in Huizen, a beautiful village in The Netherlands, not far from Amsterdam. I decided, instead of delivering a typical management cybernetics talk, to present the Essential Balances.
Management cybernetics has its models and language. They are valuable when discussing with peers and for the advancement of the discipline. Yet, they limit the accessibility of the wider audience to these ideas. What’s more, they limit the spread of the mindset and skills needed for understanding and working with organizational complexity. There is no need to put off people with transducers, amplifiers, attenuators and algedonic alerts. Even using the word “system” is unnecessary. But the first essential balance, the one influenced by the VSM, does not differ only in avoiding the cybernetic jargon. It offers an observer-centric, non-mechanistic way of dealing with organizations, and – importantly – doing so without models and prescriptions.
The next Metaphorum conference is now open for registration. It’s planned for June this year.
Linked Data is still largely unknown, or misunderstood and undervalued. Often, people find it simply too difficult. So I keep looking for new ways to make Linked Data more accessible. And with some success. In my training courses so far over 60% of the participants had no IT background. I hope even to increase this percentage in the future.
What seems to be most challenging is writing SPARQL queries. The specification is written for IT people. There are some great courses and books but they also target people with some or more IT experience. If anything, that scares the rest and keeps SPARQL away from the masses.
I keep learning what is challenging. A recurring problem – and an unexpected one – is the concept of variable.
What is a variable in SPARQL? Just a placeholder. But how can you imagine a placeholder? It’s abstract. We have no way of grasping abstract things unless we associate them with something physical and concrete. It’s difficult to imagine time, but once we draw it in space it gets easier. We can’t picture furniture, but we have no problem with chair.
The other issue is how a SPARQL query looks. While working with SPARQL helps to understand how a knowledge graph works, a SPARQL query doesn’t look like one. It is like with symbols in mathematics. “5 doesn’t look like five, while ||||| is five”. The problem with SPARQL is similar:
You want to query knowledge graph.
You want to learn new things.
But your query doesn’t look like knowledge graph.
It looks like lines of strings.
So, how to handle together the problems with grasping variables and with the look of SPARQL?
My suggestion is to imagine every SPARQL query as a graph of linked buckets and balls.
Variables are placeholders but abstract. We need a physical container1The idea of using containers is very powerful. The whole arythmetics and alegbra can be done using only the concept of container as demonstrated by William Bricken. to fill with things. We need buckets. And nodes are like balls. So, think of running2“Running” is also a metaphore and what it stands for can be communicated more gracefully. And that’s important. As you know, language shapes the way we think. a query as filling buckets with balls.
A graph pattern then will look like this:
A bucket ?A should be filled with those balls which have a relation R to ball B.
But it looks nicer when we abbreviate it like this:
This is a graph pattern in Buckets’n’Balls notation. The direction of the relation R is not shown but it’s always from left to right.
The process of writing and running a SPARQL query would then go through the following steps: Continue reading
Roam is expected to be the digital twin of your brain. Working with Roam is like “building a second brain”, the community echoes, after the training course of Tiago Forte by the same name.
Looking at Roam as a second brain is understandable. It is conditioned by a long history of swapping metaphors between computer science and cognitive science. At first computer science used the brain as a metaphor for the computer. This was reciprocated by cognitive science taking computer as a metaphor for the brain. But, as Lakoff and Johnsson convincingly demonstrated, metaphors are not innocent figures of speech. And indeed, the-brain-as-a-computer was not just a metaphor. It was, and for many still is, a guiding light and a paradigm in cognitive science. As with computer, the brain was understood as both a location of the mind and as a processor of representations. Both computationalist and connectionist schools in cognitive science and philosophy of mind held this view of cognition and still do1The computationalist even saw the mind not just as a processor of representations but of symbolic ones. This goes in line with the symbolic tradition in mathematics which paved the path of many sciences. For the consequences and alternatives, see http://iconicmath.com/ . Now, to go through all the arguments on why this is not the case is beyond the objectives of this article, but the curious ones are invited to follow them2These arguments are well developed in the following books: The Embodied Mind; Enaction; Mind in Life; Linguistic Bodies . Let’s just say that, if you are using Roam with the expectation that it will be your second brain, you might be disappointed. But here’s the good news:
Roam is even better than that.
The first note-taking tool I used was Zim. What I liked most about it was that every word or piece of text in a note could be easily turned into a new linked note. And each note showed backlinks to all other notes referring to it. All that stored as simple text files. Neat and powerful.
Yet, it was a standalone application. Having no native mobile app and no clipping functionality made it difficult to integrate with my workflows. For example, I had to collect and organise my bookmarks and web clipping elsewhere.
So I moved to Evernote. It offered a good mobile app with document camera. Evernote improved my workflows. A note can be created from a mail message, from any web page or selection of it. Evernote quickly took centre stage in my personal information management, supporting not only note-taking and content collection, but also task management and research. And I found my way of using it, which is not necessarily the way it is commonly used. I’ve described it here.
And I’ve been using Evernote for more than 10 years now. But all that time I’ve been missing the ability to create notes from the context of another note, the ability to effortlessly turn strings into things.
The other lasting frustration has been the required maintenance. Without good filing with tags and notebooks, it’s impossible to make use of the content. And this constant split of effort between core content and managing metadata turned Evernote into more of a storage room than a place for work and creativity.
I heard of Notion and other nice alternatives, but none of them justified the migration cost. I had amassed over 12 000 notes in Evernote.
I found in Roam all that I was missing in Evernote. And initially, I thought, that’s all there is to it. It’s just a package of the capabilities I was missing. As it turned out, Roam offered much more than that. Roam is not just useful for supporting any kind of knowledge work, it also stimulates writing and thinking. It has certain affordances by design, which makes it addictive. But unlike drugs, it is a healthy addiction.
Recently a friend of mine told me “I can’t get my head around the law of requisite variety”. I’ve heard that before. I have also heard the opposite and sometimes found it wasn’t the case. That’s why I wrote Variety – part 1 and part 2 back in 2013. Part 3 wasn’t that lucky to get published. But whatever was there and much more is now written and will be published as part of the chapter “Stimuli and Responses” in the forthcoming book about organisational balances. Until then, here’s an elaboration of my response to “I can’t get my head around the law of requisite variety”.
First, as a reminder of the law, I’ll just reuse a paragraph from Variety – part 1 :
It’s stated as “variety can destroy variety” by Ashby and as “only variety can absorb variety” by Beer, and has other formulations such as “The larger the variety of actions available to control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate”. Basically, when the variety of the regulator is lower than the variety of the disturbance, that gives high variety of the outcome. A regulator can only achieve desired outcome variety if its own variety is the same or higher than that of the disturbance.
That sounds way too technical so we need an example. As this medium is text, it will be easier to count the variety of words. The variety of cuckoo is four, as there are four different letters. If your goal is to count the variety of a word, as long as you can distinguish these letters, you have enough variety to achieve your goal. But what about the variety of melon and lemon? It’s five for both of them. If these are two hands of five playing cards, they are exactly equal in strength. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a winner. The cards will be played in certain order. And it is also (and only!) the order of letters that helps us distinguish melon and lemon. The different type of letters, size and order all may participate in measuring the variety of a word. If the font or the colour of letters is different, that would be another criterion for distinction, depending on how it matters for the goal that you have. And then, there was the assumption that the elements of a word are the letters, which is a common and fair assumption. But if your goal is to print them clearly, then you would be more interested in the number of pixels1You won’t have this problem with the sketch below as it’s in vectors. You can scale it up as much as you want without loss of quality..
Like gravity, the Law of Requisite Variety is omnipresent. Whenever there are purpose and interaction, it’s there. To demonstrate this, I can use just the complaint that triggered this post: “I can’t get my head around the law of requisite variety”. It contains this popular idiom “I can’t get my head around” which can be seen as a conceptual metaphor2See Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy in the Flesh by Lakoff and Johnson. See also here QUTE and Human Resources? for some examples. where certain problem or theory is seen as something physical, and the ability to wrap it, as the ability to understand it.
It could be only in my bubble, but my ears now ache from louder and louder service improvement talk. Ever better ways to map customer journeys, to analyse touch-points, and to improve user experience. I get it. It’s all good, or at least the intention is. But I can’t help thinking how much it resembles the process improvement hype. It lasted until some remembered Drucker’s words that “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all”, and embraced Lean. Others embraced Lean on other grounds. In fact, it wasn’t much more than just zooming out. The focus changed from processes to the whole business and improvement included getting rid of unnecessary processes.
That’s understandable, you may say. Processes generate costs. Getting rid of processes cuts costs. Services, on the other hand, generate revenue. No obvious reason to get rid of them but plenty of reasons to come up with new services and improve the current ones.
And yet there are so many services I don’t want to have a better experience with. I want to have no experience at all. Continue reading
I love going to jazz festivals. Listening to good jazz at home is a pleasure, but what’s missing are the vibes during a live performance. And it’s not the same when you listen to a recording of a concert. Everything changes when you are actually there, immersed, experiencing directly with all your senses. I guess it’s similar with other types of music. But what makes the difference between listening to a recording and being at concert even bigger for jazz, is that it is all about improvisation. And then the experience with single concerts and festivals is also different. With concerts, you immerse yourself for a couple of hours into a world of magic and then go back to the normal world. But with jazz festivals, you relocate to live in a music village for a couple of days. This doesn’t only make it a different experience, but also calls for different kind of decisions.
Previously, when I learned of a new jazz festival or read the line-up of a familiar one, the way I decided whether to go was simple. I just checked who would be performing. If there were musicians that I liked, but hadn’t watched live, or some that I had but wanted to see again, then I went. If not, I usually wouldn’t risk it.
Once I chose to go, this brought another set of decisions. Jazz festivals usually have many stages with concerts going in parallel during the day and into the night. Last time I went to the North Sea Jazz Festival there were over eighty performances in only a few days. So there is a good chance that some of those you want to watch will clash, and you are forced to choose. And I kept applying the same low-risk strategy for choosing what to watch as I did for deciding if I should go at all.
Then one day, I arrived late to a festival just before two clashing sets were about to begin. I dashed into the closest hall with no clue what I would find. And there I experienced what turned out to be the best concert of the whole festival. I hadn’t heard of the group and if I had read the description beforehand I would have avoided their performance.
I realised then, by only choosing concerts with familiar musicians, I was over-exploiting and under-exploring. My strategy was depriving me of learning opportunities and overall reduced the value I got from the festivals. Continue reading
It is often said that organisations are full of paradoxes. But this refers to contradictions and tensions. It is understood as something that needs to be taken care of. When organisations are looked at as social systems, however, it becomes clear that they are only possible because of paradoxes, and particularly paradoxes of self-reference. Understanding how these paradoxes create and maintain organisations is an important skill for practitioners trying to make sense of what’s going on and improve it. The basic generative organisational paradox is that of decisions. It brings new light not only on decision patterns and dependencies, but also on understanding the nature of objectives, power, and relations with clients.
Here are the recording and slides from my talk at the SCiO open day in London in January 2019.
Most of this story, but told gently, is in Chapter 5 of Essential Balances.
In 2015, when the Metaphorum was in Hull, I tried to kick off a discussion about potential contributions from cognitive science, and particularly from the Enactive school. I shared some insights and hinted at other possibilities. This year the Metaphorum conference was in Germany for the first time. It was organised by Mark Lambertz and hosted by Sipgate in Düsseldorf. I saw in the fact that the Metaphorum was in Germany a good opportunity to suggest another combination, this time with the Social Systems Theory of Niklas Luhmann.
These are the slides from my talk and here you can also watch them with all animations.