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The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive.

Bill Watterson

Office as a City: A New Metaphor and Design Approach

Clive Wilkinson is an architect that recently worked with the Barbarian Group to resign its NYC offices, including a 1,100-foot-long ‘table’ that forms a moebius-like ribbon running around the 23,000-square-foot office. He was interviewed by Elaine Louie about the reasoning involved.

Mr. Wilkinson designed an “endless table” for the Barbarian Group, an Internet advertising company in New York. source: Michael Moran

Elaine Louie, Table Manners at Work

What does the table have to do with how a workplace should function?

The lesson of it was cohesion in the community and about people connecting as well as they could ever connect. It was about flexibility: You could expand or contract your business. Barbarian has a population of about 125, but it can expand to 175. The only thing you have to worry about is adding task chairs. It’s about open structure, about making villages in buildings, for taking urban design thinking into large workplaces.

What does urban design have to do with an office?

We’ve done a number of projects taking ideas of how cities and villages work. In those situations, people occupy neighborhoods, and they have a structure of space that is familiar, so it gives them a strong sense of place. There is a variety of spaces that have distinct character, with main streets that connect you.

This is much like the thinking behind the new offices of Square in San Francisco:

David Zax, Why Square Designed Its New Offices To Work Like a City

“We were very inspired by city design and by cities in general–by areas where people cohabitate, come together, and share things in a quick and easy manner,” Gorman says. “We wanted to bring that same sensibility to the office.” And so instead of talking about a main hallway when describing the office, Gorman explains how there’s a large “avenue” running from end to end. A coffee bar in the middle acts as a sort of “town square.” Glass paneled meeting rooms are named for San Francisco intersections, “6th and Divisidero,” “6th and Ashbury,” and so on (Square’s offices are principally on the 6th floor of its building).

The design of the office “motivates people to move around the office and interact in casual, unscheduled ways,” he explains–just like the well-planned public spaces of a great city. Early concepts for the office were motivated by old 18th-century maps of cities. “When I think about a city,” Gorman says, “I shop, I go get coffee, I go to the park, I go for walks. We wanted to create that same variety in the office.” In addition to its in-house café (and in-house debugger/barista), Square has been experimenting with pop-up stores and artisan merchants appearing within Square’s own offices.

I wrote on this topic, obliquely:

The new way of work is as big a break with the industrial model as the industrial model was with the time of artisanal and agricultural work that preceded the rise of steam power and electricity. Unlike that transition, however, we will not be looking for inspiration from armies, or the slave battalions that built the pyramids. No, instead we will look to nature, or the growth of cities for inspiration.

The fast-and-loose business that is emerging as the new way of work runs more like a forest or a city than a machine. We need to learn by imitating rich ecosystems, where the appearance of chaos yields to emergent order, and reject order imposed by fiat.

These approaches replace the hierarchy lurking in the dark shadows of the office, and replace it with the street, where everyone is walking the same pavement.

from OECD Economic Surveys: United States 2014

Americans work longer hours than other developed countries (1790 hours annually), like Denmark, which has the highest happiness in the world (1546 hours annually). And 45% of men and 20% of women work more than 40 hours per week, which in many case is uncompensated.

Selling Through Chat Apps

Contextual commerce?

Juro Osawa, Huawei Sells New Smartphone Through WeChat App

When Huawei Technologies released its new smartphone in China this week, the company chose the Chinese messaging app WeChat as one of its main sales channels.

A screenshot of JD.com’s WeChat store features an ad for Huawei’s new Honor 6 smartphone.

While many businesses use Tencent’s WeChat for marketing and customer service, the idea of actually selling products through WeChat is only starting to take off, after a virtual store run by online retailer JD.com was integrated into WeChat in late May.

JD, China’s second-largest e-commerce company after Alibaba Group, said in a statement this week that its WeChat store received 550,000 pre-orders for Huawei’s new Honor 6 smartphone, before the handset became available on Tuesday.

This shows that WeChat is already recognized by Chinese consumers as a shopping channel, JD said. In March, Tencent, the Internet giant that developed WeChat, announced a deal to buy a 15% stake in JD and the two firms became strategic partners. It is the first time for the JD-WeChat store to team up with a handset maker, according to JD.

It doesn’t seem like the chat app is analyzing what is being talked about, which would be creepy, although we are used to Google offering up ads based on  search terms. Perhaps a mode where the user asks for something from the chat app, like ‘whatsapp: what’s a good ramen place nearby?’, which would lead to an ad for a ramen place.

Net Threats

The third of the Pew Research Center’s Digital Life in 2025 reports has come out

Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie, Digital Life in 20125: Net Threats

As Internet experts look to the future of the Web, they have a number of concerns. This is not to say they are pessimistic: The majority of respondents to this 2014 Future of the Internet canvassing say they hope that by 2025 there will not be significant changes for the worse and hindrances to the ways in which people get and share content online today. And they said they expect that technology innovation will continue to afford more new opportunities for people to connect.

Still, some express wide levels of concern that this yearning for an open Internet will be challenged by trends that could sharply disrupt the way the Internet works for many users today as a source of largely unfettered content flows.

The Net Threats These Experts Fear

1) Actions by nation-states to maintain security and political control will lead to more blocking, filtering, segmentation, and balkanization of the Internet.

2) Trust will evaporate in the wake of revelations about government and corporate surveillance and likely greater surveillance in the future.

3) Commercial pressures affecting everything from Internet architecture to the flow of information will endanger the open structure of online life.

4) Efforts to fix the TMI (too much information) problem might over-compensate and actually thwart content sharing.

A few excerpts:

Paul Saffo, managing director at Discern Analytics and consulting associate professor at Stanford University, said, “The pressures to balkanize the global Internet will continue and create new uncertainties. Governments will become more skilled at blocking access to unwelcome sites.”

danah boyd, a research scientist for Microsoft, responded, “Because of governance issues (and the international implications of the NSA reveals), data sharing will get geographically fragmented in challenging ways. The next few years are going to be about control.”

Glenn Edens, director of research in networking, security, and distributed systems at PARC, said, “Network operators’ desire to monetize their assets to the detriment of progress represents the biggest potential problem. Enabling content creators to easily and directly reach audiences, better search tools, better promotion mechanisms and curation tools—continuing to dismantle the ‘middle men’ is key.”

The chief counsel for a major foundation wrote, “Collusive and anti-competitive practices by telecommunications operators threaten the re-creation of an Internet controlled by people.” A post-doctoral researcher wrote, “We are seeing an increase in walled gardens created by giants like Facebook and Apple… Commercialization of the Internet, paradoxically, is the biggest challenge to the growth of the Internet. Communication networks’ lobbying against Net neutrality is the biggest example of this.”

Leah Lievrouw, a professor of information studies at the University of California-Los Angeles, wrote, “There are too many institutional players interested in restricting, controlling, and directing ‘ordinary’ people’s ability to make, access, and share knowledge and creative works online—intellectual property rights holders, law enforcement and security agencies, religious and cultural censors, political movements and parties, etc. For a long time I’ve felt that the utopianism, libertarianism, and sheer technological skill of both professional and amateur programmers and engineers would remain the strongest counterbalance to these restrictive institutional pressures, but I’m increasingly unsure as the technologists themselves and their skills are being increasingly restricted, marginalized, and even criminalized.”

Josh Calder, a futurist with the Foresight Alliance, expressed confidence that threats to Net neutrality will be routed around. He responded, “Splintering based on corporate control of content and pipelines appears to be the greatest danger, at least in the developed world. It seems likely that steps will be taken to avoid barriers like an end to Net neutrality and the further erection of ‘walled gardens,’ and to keep the dangers of cybercrime sufficiently in check so that accessing content will not be significantly hindered.”

Stowe Boyd, lead researcher for GigaOM Research, said, “The continued economic mess of the postnormal will be accelerated by the ephemeralization of work and the mounting costs of countering global warming, and governments will have too much to deal with to effectively slow the Internet’s oozing into every corner of every part of the economy. The cost pressure will be too great to slow anything. The stalling of the telephone and cable monopolies on high-speed broadband and cellular will lead to fast defection to services offered by Amazon and Google (and a few others), who will buy up or build around the telecommunications companies.”

Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz. founders of the online community Awakening Technology, based in Portland, Oregon, wrote, “In a 1958 speech, the late Edward R. Murrow said: ‘This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.’

“The Internet was commercialized in 1995, opening the floodgates to e-commerce, advertising, scams, identity theft and similar crimes, pay-for-play applications, pornography and much more. According to Wikipedia, some 80 to 85% of all the e-mail on the Internet is spam, and Incapsula says that in 2013, less than 40% of Internet activity was conducted by humans. Some 30% of Internet bandwidth goes to pornography, and according to the Huffington Post in 2013, porn sites get more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined.

“All of this makes it more difficult for people to get and share content online, and without social policy and technology changes, it’s likely to get worse by 2025. Unless people rise up nonviolently to take charge of their local systems and demand public technology and governance oversight and universal, affordable access to the Internet as a whole, humankind will remain captive to the likes of corporations, spammers, hackers, and online criminals. What would it take to re-envision our use of the Internet by 2025 to fulfill the dreams of its early creators and pioneers? Television provides a cautionary tale.”

The point/counterpoint of the techno optimists and the less optimistic is fascinating reading.

What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, And Understanding?

A study about peaceful coexistence based on examining Switzerland and Yugoslavia (yes, some parts did not go to war) suggests that the conventional approach to ending ethnic or religious regional conflict may be all wrong.

Alex Rutherford, Dion Harmon, Justin Werfel, Shlomiya Bar-Yam, Alexander Gard-Murray, Andreas Gros, Yaneer Bar-Yam, Good Fences: The Importance of Setting Boundaries for Peaceful Coexistence

We consider the conditions of peace and violence among ethnic groups, testing a theory designed to predict the locations of violence and interventions that can promote peace. Characterizing the model’s success in predicting peace requires examples where peace prevails despite diversity. Switzerland is recognized as a country of peace, stability and prosperity. This is surprising because of its linguistic and religious diversity that in other parts of the world lead to conflict and violence. Here we analyze how peaceful stability is maintained. Our analysis shows that peace does not depend on integrated coexistence, but rather on well defined topographical and political boundaries separating groups. Mountains and lakes are an important part of the boundaries between sharply defined linguistic areas. Political canton and circle (sub-canton) boundaries often separate religious groups. Where such boundaries do not appear to be sufficient, we find that specific aspects of the population distribution either guarantee sufficient separation or sufficient mixing to inhibit intergroup violence according to the quantitative theory of conflict. In exactly one region, a porous mountain range does not adequately separate linguistic groups and violent conflict has led to the recent creation of the canton of Jura. Our analysis supports the hypothesis that violence between groups can be inhibited by physical and political boundaries. A similar analysis of the area of the former Yugoslavia shows that during widespread ethnic violence existing political boundaries did not coincide with the boundaries of distinct groups, but peace prevailed in specific areas where they did coincide. The success of peace in Switzerland may serve as a model to resolve conflict in other ethnically diverse countries and regions of the world.

In the case of Iraq, for example, trifurcation into three separately administered countries — Kurdistan, Shiastand, and Sunnistan — might be the wisest course. Incidentally, that was Biden’s recommendation in 2006.

At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. […] Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

George Orwell, The Freedom of the Press

The complaint one makes against that anti-social jargon, which so easily passes for economic science, is that it is in ludicrous opposition to the common observation of facts. Political economy professes to be a science based on observation. But the bitter pedantry which often usurps that name usually assumes its facts, after it has rounded off dogmas to suit its clients. In practice this magazine of untruth escapes detection for two reasons. One is that the facts relating to labour are invariably seen through the spectacles of capital… The second reason which obscures the truth about industry is, that the facts about capital are almost never honestly disclosed.

Benjamin Harrison, 1872

Great explanation of why economists seem to be wrong so often about economic policies.

A radical breakthrough in engine design:

Jason Cammisa, No crankshaft, no problem: Toyota’s free piston engine is brilliant
Electrically driven cars are the future. But until we have cheap, 1000-mile batteries, we still need range-extending fossil-fuel engines. Those devices don’t need to turn wheels, just generate juice. The simple solution is to strap a generator to a piston engine, as BMW did with the two-cylinder range extender in its i3 EV. But if the engine never turns a wheel, there’s no need for it to rotate anything. Why not cut out the middleman and use the piston’s reciprocating motion to generate electricity? That obviates camshafts and most other rotating parts, too.
Toyota recently showed a prototype engine that does just that. It’s called the Free Piston Engine Linear Generator (FPEG). “Free” refers to the fact that the piston isn’t attached to a crankshaft; instead, as the piston is forced downward during its power stroke, it passes through windings in the cylinder to generate a burst of three-phase AC electricity. The FPEG operates like a two-stroke engine but adds direct gasoline injection and electrically operated valves. It can also be run like a diesel, using compression rather than a spark plug to ignite its fuel mixture.
Toyota says this mechanically simple engine achieves a claimed thermal-efficiency rating of 42 percent in continuous use. Only the best, most complicated, and most expensive of today’s gas engines can come close to that number, and only in specific circumstances.

A radical breakthrough in engine design:

Jason Cammisa, No crankshaft, no problem: Toyota’s free piston engine is brilliant

Electrically driven cars are the future. But until we have cheap, 1000-mile batteries, we still need range-extending fossil-fuel engines. Those devices don’t need to turn wheels, just generate juice. The simple solution is to strap a generator to a piston engine, as BMW did with the two-cylinder range extender in its i3 EV. But if the engine never turns a wheel, there’s no need for it to rotate anything. Why not cut out the middleman and use the piston’s reciprocating motion to generate electricity? That obviates camshafts and most other rotating parts, too.

Toyota recently showed a prototype engine that does just that. It’s called the Free Piston Engine Linear Generator (FPEG). “Free” refers to the fact that the piston isn’t attached to a crankshaft; instead, as the piston is forced downward during its power stroke, it passes through windings in the cylinder to generate a burst of three-phase AC electricity. The FPEG operates like a two-stroke engine but adds direct gasoline injection and electrically operated valves. It can also be run like a diesel, using compression rather than a spark plug to ignite its fuel mixture.

Toyota says this mechanically simple engine achieves a claimed thermal-efficiency rating of 42 percent in continuous use. Only the best, most complicated, and most expensive of today’s gas engines can come close to that number, and only in specific circumstances.

(via alexanderpf)