The Story of Glormf: Lessons on Language and Naming

Jack Park recently asked about Link As You Think on the Blue Oxen Collaboration Collaboratory. I’ve written several blog posts on the matter, but there’s not much else out there. This was a great excuse for me to tell a few vignettes about Shared Language and the importance of names.    (KMO)

Glormf    (KMP)

This is Glormf, courtesy of the uber-talented cartoonist, Brian Narelle.    (KMQ)


Fen Labalme coined the term (originally spelled “glormph”) at an Identity Commons retreat in July 2003. We were strategizing about next steps, and we found that we were all struggling to describe what it was that we were all working on. Although we all had different views of the proverbial elephant, we were also convinced that we were talking about the same thing. In an inspired moment of clarity, Fen exclaimed, “It’s Glormf!” Much to our delight, Brian was listening to the conversation and drew Glormf for all of us to see.    (KMS)

Glormf’s birth lifted a huge burden off our shoulders. Even though Glormf was mucky, it was also real. We knew this, because it had a name and even a picture, and we could point to it and talk about it with ease. The name itself had no biases towards any particular view, which enabled all of us to use it comfortably. Each of us still had a hard time describing exactly what Glormf was, but if anyone challenged Glormf’s existence, any one of us could point to Glormf and say, “There it is.”    (KMT)

We had created Shared Language, although we hadn’t rigorously defined or agreed on what the term meant. And that was okay, because the mere existence of Shared Language allowed us to move the conversation forward.    (KMU)

Ingy’s Rule and Community Marks (KMV)

Ingy dot Net‘s first rule of starting a successful Open Source project is to come up with a cool name. I like to say that a startup isn’t real until it has a T-shirt.    (KMW)

Heather Newbold once told a wonderful story about how Matt Gonzalez’s mayoral campaign buttons galvanized the progressive community in San Francisco and almost won him the election. As people started wearing the green campaign buttons, she described the startling revelation that progressives in San Francisco had: There are others out there like me. A lot of them. I was amazed to hear her speak of the impact of this recognition, coming from a city that has traditionally been a hotbed of activism.    (KMX)

There’s a pattern in all of these rules and stories. I struggled to come up with a name for this pattern, and the best I could do for a long time was Stone Soup (courtesy of the participants in my 2004 Chili PLoP workshop). I loved the story associated with this name, the parable of how transformational self-awareness can be. But, it wasn’t quite concrete enough for my taste.    (KMY)

I think Chris Messina‘s term, “Community Mark“, is much better. Chris has actually fleshed out the legal implications of a Community Mark, which I recommend that folks read. Whether or not you agree with him on the details, the essence of Community Marks is indisputable: Effective communities have Community Marks. Community Marks make communities real, just as the term “Glormf” made a concept real. That’s the power of Shared Language.    (KMZ)

Pattern Languages and Wikis    (KN0)

Pattern Languages are all about Shared Language. Much of Christopher Alexander‘s classic, The Timeless Way of Building, is about the importance of names. In his book, Alexander devotes an entire chapter to describing this objective quality that all great buildings have. As you can imagine, his description is not entirely concrete, but he does manage to give it a name: “Quality Without A Name.” Call it a copout if you’d like, but if you use the term (or its acronym, “QWAN”) with anyone in the Pattern Language community, they will know what you’re talking about. Shared Language.    (KN1)

Ward Cunningham was one of the pioneers who brought Alexander’s work to the software engineering community. He created Wikis as a way for people to author and share patterns. Not surprisingly, an important principle underlying Wikis is the importance of names. Regardless of what you think about WikiWords, they have important affordances in this regard. They encourage you to think of word pairs to describe things, which encourages more precise names. They discourage long phrases, which also encourages precision as well as memorability. The more memorable a term, the more likely people will use it.    (KN2)

Ward often tells a story in his Wiki talks about using Class-Responsibility-Collaboration Cards to do software design. One of the things he noticed was that people would put blank cards somewhere on the table and talk about them as if there was something written there. The card and its placement made the concept real, and so the team could effectively discuss it, even though it didn’t have a name or description. (Ward has since formalized leaving CRC cards blank as long as possible as a best practice.) This observation helped him recognize the need and importance of Link As You Think, even if the concept (or Wiki page) did not already exist.    (KNG)

Open Source: Propagating Names    (KN3)

One of Blue Oxen‘s advisors, Christine Peterson, coined the term, “Open Source.” In February 1998, after Netscape had announced its plans to open source its browser, a few folks — Chris, Eric Raymond, Michael Tiemann, Ka-Ping Yee, and others — gathered at the Foresight Institute to strategize. At the meeting, Todd Anderson complained that the term, “Free Software,” was an impediment to wide-scale adoption. After the meeting, Christine called up Todd and suggested the term, “Open Source.” They both loved it. But, they didn’t know how to sell it.    (KN4)

So, they didn’t. At the followup meeting a few days later, Todd casually used the term without explanation. And others in the room naturally picked up on the term, to the point where they were all using it. At that point, they realized they had a good name, and they started evangelizing it to the rest of the community.    (KN5)

Names change the way we think about concepts, and so propagating names widely can shift the way people think about things. This is what happened with “Open Source.” This is what George Lakoff writes about in Moral Politics.    (KN6)

The mark of a good name is that people naturally start using it. A name can come from the top down, but it can’t generally be forced onto people.    (KN7)

J. Fairchild and Community Space

Katrin Verclas, co-director of Aspiration and co-organizer of the FLOSS Usability Sprint, wrote a fantastic piece entitled, “Great Good Spaces for Community, Activism, and Better Software.” It’s no accident that we connected when we first met at the Advocacy Developer’s Convergence last June. Even though our missions are different, there’s great overlap in our thinking and philosophy. That holds true with the other organizations Blue Oxen Associates has partnered with as well.    (ID7)

A critical element in building strong community and in facilitating effective collaboration is having the right space. As Katrin points out, this holds true for both physical and metaphysical (or online) spaces. I had three intellectual inspirations in starting Blue Oxen: Doug Engelbart, Christopher Alexander, and George Lakoff. Christopher Alexander is an architect who wrote about Pattern Languages in the 1970s, which was all about designing great spaces, spaces that were alive, that had this Quality Without A Name. Blue Oxen is trying to understand and discover patterns of effective collaboration, which encompasses issues of space.    (ID8)

When Katrin wrote her piece, we were looking for a space to hold our sprint, and we weren’t finding a place that satisfied us. Luckily, I had a wildcard in my back pocket. Jeff Shults was the manager of the knOwhere Store in the late 1990s, which was MGTaylor‘s showcase for its collaborative environment and process. When the store closed, Jeff purchased all the furniture and bided his time until he could open his own space. That time came late last year, when he struck an agreement with SFIA to manage their new space on 10th and Mission in San Francisco.    (ID9)

I first met Jeff at Planetwork in 2003, but the first time we worked closely together was at the 7-Domains Workshop last July. Jeff is literally an environmental master. He has this sixth sense for configuring spaces to maximize collaboration. He has both thought deeply about the subject and has practiced it for some time. He’s also a fantastic listener, which is an attribute he shares with all the great facilitators I know.    (IDA)

I had seen the space last fall, and to say that it was in rough condition is an understatement. But in early January, when we still hadn’t found a good space, I decided to call Jeff anyway. The transformation the space had made in the course of two months was amazing. Although Jeff hasn’t officially opened his facility, he not only let us use his space, but he agreed to be one of our sponsors.    (IDB)

I can’t tell you how many people walked into our event last week, looked around, and said, “Wow, what a great space!” I’d hear this, laugh, and respond, “You don’t know the half of it.” All of us have an intuition that allows us to recognize a great space when we see one, an intuition that sadly doesn’t wake up often enough. But you have to discover the thinking and hard work that goes into creating such a space before you can truly appreciate it.    (IDC)

Jeff’s company and space is called J. Fairchild. If you need a great meeting space in San Francisco, talk to Jeff and let him know I sent you his way.    (IDD)

Election Redux: A Call for Conversations

Trudging through the surge of commentary in the blogosphere following the elections, Kellan Elliott-McCrea‘s post jumped out at me. He wrote:    (4Q2)

There is a political theory that says that people who disagree with you aren’t fundamentally bad people, but misguided, or perhaps coming from different backgrounds. Having just spent a couple of hours talking to someone who voted for Bush I’d have to say I disagree. He is superficially a good person, but deep down firmly believes that might is right, American lives are more important then any other lives, that policies which discriminate on race make statistical sense, human rights are a privilege but capital rights are inalienable. How do you answer that? We can quite civilly agree to disagree, and go back to our regular neutral pleasant conversations not to mention a few moments of uneasy solidarity making fun of Christian fundamentalists, but the chasm of understanding is so vast I can’t imagine what crossing it would look like.    (4Q3)

I know many people who feel the same way as Kellan, and I find this troubling. Is intelligent discourse truly a lost cause? Are we as polarized as those red and blue maps make it seem? Is conversation pointless?    (4Q4)

No, no, and no!    (4Q5)

Lakoff on Framing    (4Q6)

I’m a huge admirer of George Lakoff‘s work. He’s part of the canon of thinkers who strongly influenced The Blue Oxen Way (along with Doug Engelbart, Christopher Alexander, and Richard Gabriel). So when I saw that Lakoff was speaking the same day I was at last weekend’s Green Festival in San Francisco, I decided to show up five hours earlier than scheduled so I could hear what he had to say.    (4Q7)

In a nutshell, Lakoff’s thesis (detailed in his books, Don’t Think of an Elephant! and Moral Politics) is that conservatives have effectively hijacked the language of public policy. When we use terms like “tax relief” and “pro-life,” we are implicitly framing the debate from a conservative standpoint (e.g. “Taxes are an affliction,” and “Pro-abortion implies anti-life”). Progressives, he argues, must learn to reframe issues if they’re to have a chance at swaying the so-called swing-voters.    (4Q8)

I’ve read Lakoff’s thesis many times, but this was the first time I heard him talk about it in person, and what I heard troubled me. Obviously, he was not speaking to a bunch of cognitive scientists. He was speaking to a bunch of fired-up activists looking for something to cheer about, and he did a good job playing to that crowd. But heard live (and obviously simplified), his thesis seemed to suggest that we were on the road to further polarization, a zero-sum game where a small minority of the country would determine which extreme would win.    (4Q9)

If you read Moral Politics, it’s clear that Lakoff’s thinking is not that simplistic. But I couldn’t help calling him on it anyway. After his talk, I asked him, “What about framing the issues so that the two sides can talk to each other rather to their own constituents?” Lakoff’s response was that a progressive framing would do just that by balancing the language of public policy, which is heavily slanted towards conservatives right now.    (4QA)

A Diverse Community of Deep Thinkers    (4QB)

Okay, I can buy that. Lakoff is positioning framing as a winning strategy for progressive politicians, but it can also be seen as leveling the playing field for intelligent, balanced discourse. The problem is that it’s not enough to facilitate the latter. In the first place, we need to talk to people who think differently from ourselves. In the second place, we need to be deeper thinkers.    (4QC)

The latter is the harder problem. For starters, we have to know the facts, regardless of how they are spun. Whether or not you believe that the Bush administration knew there were no weapons of mass destruction prior to invading Iraq, or whether or not you care, the fact was that they weren’t there. Yet a large percentage of Americans still don’t realize this. If so many people can’t get these facts straight, how can we even talk to them about deeper issues, such as whether or not Bush is a good conservative, or why so many conservative publications (The Economist, The New Republic, The Financial Times, The American Conservative) endorsed Kerry?    (4QD)

Well, my answer isn’t going to satisfy most people, but it’s the best that I can offer: The road to deeper thinking starts by talking to folks who are different from ourselves. Talk is not cheap. We can’t and shouldn’t expect to persuade everyone, at least not easily, but what we can do is encourage people to think differently. If we start there, bigger things will follow.    (4QE)

Start with your immediate friends and families. Diversify your blogrolls and reading lists. Travel. Watch old episodes of Firing Line. (You read that right. I consider William Buckley, Jr.‘s old show television’s highest and brightest beacon of intelligent discourse in my lifetime. As right-wing and as forcefully opinionated as Buckley is, he always made it a point to interview people with very different views, which he did with respect and wit.)    (4QF)

Let’s break the divide and talk to each other more, and then let’s see what happens.    (4QG)

Robin Lakoff: The Linguistics of Food

First, a confession. I don’t always read my email carefully. A few weeks ago, I received an announcement for last week’s PARC Forum, a periodic lecture series that I often attend. I skimmed the announcement, and two words immediately jumped out at me: “Lakoff” and “identity.” That was enough for me to put it in my calendar.    (14E)

I had read the announcement carefully enough to see that it was Robin Lakoff, not George Lakoff, who was speaking. This was fine; she is also a Berkeley linguist, and I was curious to hear her thoughts. I also assumed that Robin is George’s wife, which as it turns out, is not the case. A little bit of Internet searching suggested that she might be his ex-wife, but I have yet to confirm this. As for “identity,” I thought that Lakoff might offer some insights that would be relevant to digital identities.    (14F)

Unbelievably, I missed a very important word in the talk’s description: “food.” The talk was entitled, “Identity a la Carte; or, You Are What You Eat,” and the theme was how we construct minor identities of ourselves around food. I walked into the talk a bit late, but was delighted when I started listening and realized what the talk was actually about. Lakoff was a charming speaker with a dry sense of humor, and the talk was entertaining and informative.    (14G)

Lakoff’s thesis was that how we talk about and interact with food says a lot about ourselves. She gave an outstanding overview of the history of food in our culture, explaining that the recent interest in food stood in sharp contrast to the 1950s, where it wasn’t considered very masculine or even very American. One metric for demonstrating the rise of interest in food is the proliferation of cookbooks. The other are the new words that have recently entered our vocabulary, such as “foodie.”    (14H)

Lakoff then explained that the rise in interest in food over the past 50 years paralleled a similar rise from colonial times to the mid-19th century in America. Initially, servants were largely responsible for cooking, which they learned from their mothers. With the rise of the middle class, the responsibility shifted to people themselves. A similar phenomenon was responsible for the emergence of restaurants in France. Because the aristocracy was overthrown in the French Revolution, the cooks needed to find something else to do, so they started up restaurants.    (14I)

The evolution in people’s interest in and roles regarding food are evident in the recipes themselves. Recipes in the colonial period were concise and fairly ambiguous. They were general guidelines for experienced cooks. This began to change in the 19th century, culminating in Fannie Farmer’s cookbooks in the 1890s, which perfected the measurements and specifications still used in cookbooks today.    (14J)

Curiously, in the past 50 years, there has been a rise in interest in food, but the reverse phenomenon has occurred with recipes. Lakoff compared a scalloped potatoes recipe from the Joy of Cooking, Julia Childs’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse Vegetables. The first was no-nonsense, with the traditional listing of ingredients followed by fairly detailed instructions. Childs followed the same basic formula, except the measurements were less precise and the terminology more advanced. Waters did not list measurements at all. She clearly spoke to the reader as a peer, suggesting amounts “to taste” and offering suggestions for variations on a theme as opposed to a rigorous formula for a single dish.    (14K)

I think there’s an important lesson in knowledge management here. If the purpose of knowledge management systems it to make humans smarter, then we must design systems with humans in mind. The Semantic Web suggests that we need to express knowledge precisely. The lesson here is that we need to express knowledge as precisely as our users demand, which may not be very much. We have to take into account the tacit knowledge already in the heads of our users.    (14L)

During questions-and-answers, one audience member noted wryly that the fall of the Roman Empire was preceded by Romans erecting statues of their favorite chefs, and hoped that history would not repeat itself given our current obsession with food.    (14M)

George Soros: “The Bubble of American Supremacy”

George Soros has an excellent article in this month’s The Atlantic Monthly entitled, “The Bubble of American Supremacy,” where he decries the neoconservative Bush doctrine and proposes an alternative. Soros compares the Bush doctrine to a financial bubble:    (OE)

The quest for American supremacy qualifies as a bubble. The dominant position the United States occupies in the world is the element of reality that is being distorted. The proposition that the United States will be better off if it uses its position to impose its values and interests everywhere is the misconception. It is exactly by not abusing its power that America attained its current position. (65)    (OF)

One of Soros’s criticisms is that framing our fight against terrorism as a “war” instead of “crime-fighting” dooms it to failure. (See my previous entry on George Lakoff and framing.) War assumes that there is an enemy state, which is not currently the case. Terrorism has always been a problem (although the scope and form in which it took place on September 11 was unprecedented), and will never completely go away. Worse, war implies and, in some ways, condones the existence of innocent victims, some of whom will undoubtedly become terrorists themselves in response. Soros says:    (OG)

The most powerful country in the world cannot afford to be consumed by fear. To make the war on terrorism the centerpiece of our national strategy is an abdication of our responsibility as the leading nation in the world. Moreover, by allowing terrorism to become our principal preoccupation, we are playing into the terrorists’ hands. They are setting our priorities. (66)    (OH)

Soros concludes by proposing a cooperative approach towards building collective security:    (OI)

I propose replacing the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive military action with preventative action of a constructive and affirmative nature. Increased foreign aid or better and fairer trade rules, for example, would not violate the sovereignty of the recipients. Military action should remain a last resort. The United States is currently preoccupied with issues of security, and rightly so. But the framework within which to think about security is collective security. Neither nuclear proliferation nor international terrorism can be successfully addressed without international cooperation. The world is looking to us for leadership. We have provided it in the past; the main reason why anti-American feelings are so strong in the world today is that we are not providing it in the present. (66)    (OJ)