Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Writer's Studio

I'm getting into being a writer. Ideas are pouring out of my head. Everywhere I look I see informal learning. Just now I was experimenting with Copernic Summarizer. It's a nifty piece of software that rips sentences out of a document or website and returns a summary (and keywords) of 100, 250, or 1000 words. If you prefer, it will give you 5%, 10%, 25%, or 50% of the document, be it in Word, HTML, pdf, or whatever.

This is not a tool to use in place of reading. (Woody Allen: "I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.") I'm trying it out as a way to screen my reading. Otherwise I'm never going to be able to keep up. Information is piling up here faster than I can read it. After lunch, I found Emotional Alchemy on sales for $3 at Pegasus Books. The Axemaker's gift was only $2. How could I resist? A few doors down, at Half Price Books, I found The Cluetrain Manifesto for $2, The One Best Way for $3, and Teaching the Elephant to Dance, One the FIring Line, and Adhocracy for $1 each. Adhocracy is personally signed to David Potruck, CEO of Schwab, from author Bob Waterman.

The scary thing is that the web content I've collected about informal learning -- maybe I should rename it natural learning -- is greater than the book content. So Copernic Summarizer will save me weeks if I can trust it to do triage on white papers and web sites.

Let's look at how well Copernic can handle some known entities. T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was implanted into my skull in 11th grade, and its wonderful flow and metaphors still echo in my brain: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas" or "In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo." Here's 10% of J. Alfred:
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: Streets that follow like a tedious argument Of insidious intent To lead you to an overwhelming question ?

Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time To wonder, "Do I dare?"

I should have been a pair of ragged claws Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Smoothed by long fingers, Asleep ? tired ? or it malingers, Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?

If one, settling a pillow by her head, Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves Combing the white hair of the waves blown back When the wind blows the water white and black.
Not bad. I wonder how the Declaration of Independence will do.
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

---Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
I get the idea. That gives me enough to go on. I wonder what Copernic will do with a book. Time to go to Bartelby. John Locke, not a guy I read regulary, wrote Some Thoughts Concerning Education in 1690 as a series of letters to a friend about his son's education. The year before he was offered the ambassorship to Prussia (William and Mary were personal friends) but had to turn down the job because he didn't feel up to the heavy drinking that was the rule in the court of the Elector of Brandenburg. His philosophies are the root of much modern European thought. Here's 10% of his first letter/chapter:
I imagine the minds of children as easily turn'd this or that way, as water it self: and though this be the principal part, and our main care should be about the inside, yet the clay-cottage is not to be neglected.

How necessary health is to our business and happiness; and how requisite a strong constitution, able to endure hardships and fatigue, is to one that will make any figure in the world, is too obvious to need any proof.

The face when we are born, is no less tender than any other part of the body.

Give me leave therefore to advise you not to fence too carefully against the cold of this our climate.

I will also advise his feet to be wash'd every day in cold water, and to have his shoes so thin, that they might leak and let in water, whenever he comes near it.

Playing in the open air has but this one danger in it, that I know; and that is, that when he is hot with running up and down, he should sit or lie down on the cold or moist earth.

This I grant; and drinking cold drink, when they are hot with labour or exercise, brings more people to the grave, or to the brink of it, by fevers, and other diseases, than anything I know.

These mischiefs are easily enough prevented whilst he is little, being then seldom out of sight.

This is all I think can be done in the case: for, as years increase, liberty must come with them; and in a great many things he must be trusted to his own conduct, since there cannot always be a guard upon him, except what you have put into his own mind by good principles, and establish'd habits, which is the best and surest, and therefore most to be taken care of.

For, from repeated cautions and rules, never so often inculcated, you are not to expect any thing either in this, or any other case, farther than practice has establish'd them into habits.
So after midnight I returned here and pointed Copernic at two dozen files in my "To Read" and "Reference" files. This took about 20 minutes, part of which was set-up time. I emailed each summary to jaycross @ so I could keep track of them. Now I'm going to check how intelligible they are.

For some of the articles, 10% is too severe a cut; the results don't say much. But an article on implementing Emotional Intelligence comes across clearly. I intend to read the entire thing.

Likewise, the classic Hamel and Prahalad article in HBR, Strategic Intent, is a keeper, although the key parts for informal learning purposes are (1) not holding back aspirations due to current lack of funds and (2) benchmarking employee performance against others in the industry. Japanese corporations leverage resources by accelerating
the pace of organizational learning and try to attain seemingly
impossible goals. "Companies that have risen to global leadership over the past 20 years invariably began with ambitions that were out of all proportion to their resources and capabilities." These guys are way ahead of their time in writing, "For smart competitors, the goal is not competitive imitation but competitive innovation, the art of containing competitive risks within manageable proportions." They also address my usual bugaboo of looking at the wrong timeframe: "For smart competitors, the goal is not competitive imitation but competitive innovation, the art of containing competitive risks within manageable proportions." A great read, but not in my immediate bullseye; I can defer this one for now.

I read a few more, chucked some in the trash bin and decided others were keepers. Bottom line: I think the summarizer can save me several hours a week, maybe more while I'm in research mode. Also, its dense results may keep my wandering mind occupied. Reading summaries is like sipping brandy rather than quaffing wine.

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