October 19, 2014
Map of The Habitat World
By now a lot of you may have heard about the initiative at Oakland’s Museum of Digital Arts & Entertainment to resurrect Habitat on the web using C64 emulators and vintage server hardware. If not, you can read more about it here (there’s also been a modest bit of coverage in the game press, for example at Wired, Joystiq, and Gamasutra).
Part of this effort has had me digging through my archives, looking at old source files to answer questions that people had and to refresh my own memory of how things worked. It’s been pretty nostalgic, actually. One of the cooler things I stumbled across was the Habitat world map, something which relatively few people have ever seen because when Habitat was finally released to the public it got rebranded (as “Club Caribe”) with an entirely different set of publicity materials. I had a big printout of this decorating my office at Skywalker Ranch and later at American Information Exchange, but not very many people will have been in either of those places. Now, however, thanks to the web, I can share it publicly for the first time.
We wanted to have a map because we thought we would need a plan for enlarging the world as the user population grew. The idea was to have a framework into which we could plug new population centers and new places for stories and adventures.
The specific map we ended up with came about because I was playing around writing code to generate plausible topographic surfaces using fractal techniques (and, of course, lots and lots and LOTS of random numbers). The little program I wrote to do this was quite a CPU hog, but I could run it on a bunch of different computers in parallel and combine the results (sort of like modern MapReduce techniques, only by hand!). One night I grabbed every Unix machine on the Lucasfilm network that I could lay my hands on (two or three Vax minicomputers and six or eight Sun workstations) and let the thing cook for an epic all-nighter of virtual die rolling. In the morning I was left with this awesome height field, in the form of a file containing a big matrix of altitude numbers. Then, of course, the question was what to do with it, and in particular, how to look at it. Remember that in those days, computers didn’t have much in the way of image display capability; everything was either low resolution or low color fidelity or both (the Pixar graphics guys had some high end display hardware, but I didn’t have access to it and anyway I’d have to write more code to do something with the file I had, which wasn’t in any kind of standard image format). Then I realized that we had these new Apple LaserWriter printers. Although they were 1-bit per pixel monochrome devices, they printed at 300 DPI, which meant you could get away with dithering for grayscale. And you fed stuff to them using PostScript, a newfangled Forth-like programming language. So I ordered Adobe’s book on PostScript and went to work.
I wrote a little C program that took my big height field and reduced it to a 500×100 image at 4 bits per pixel, and converted this to a file full of ASCII hexadecimal values. I then wrapped this in a little bit of custom PostScript that would interpret the hex dump as an image and print it, and voilá, out of the printer comes a lovely grayscale topographic map. Another little quick filter and I clipped all the topography below a reasonable altitude to establish “sea level”, and I had some pretty sweet looking landscape. At this point, you could make out a bunch of obvious geographic features, so we picked locations for cities, and drew some lines for roads between them, and suddenly it was a world. A little bit more PostScript hacking and I was able to actually draw nicely rendered roads and city labels directly on the map. Then I blew it up to a much larger size and printed it over several pages which I trimmed and taped together to yield a six and a half foot wide map suitable for posting on the wall.
As I was going through my archives in conjunction with the project to reboot Habitat, I encountered the original PostScript source for the map. I ran it through GhostScript and rendered it into a 22,800×4,560 pixel TIFF image which I could open in Photoshop and wallow around in. This immediately tempted me to do a bit more embellishment with Photoshop, so a little bit more hacking on the PostScript and I could split the various components of the image (the topographic relief, the roads, the city labels, etc.) into separate images which could then be individually manipulated as layers. I colorized the topography, put it through a Gaussian blur to reduce the chunkiness, and did a few other little bits of cosmetic tweaking, and the result is the image you see here (clicking on the picture will take you to a much larger version):
(Also, if you care to fiddle with this in other formats, the PostScript for the raw map can be gotten here. Beware that depending on what kind of configuration your browser has, your browser may just attempt to render the PostScript, which might not have exactly the results you want or expect. Have fun.)
There a number of interesting details here worth mentioning. Note that the Habitat world is cylindrical. This lets us encompass several different interesting storytelling possibilities: Going around the cylinder lets you circumnavigate the world; obviously, the first avatar to do this would be famous. The top edge is bounded by a wall, the bottom edge by a cliff. This means that you can fall of the edge of the world, or explore the wall for mysterious openings. By the way, the top edge is West. Habitat compasses point towards the West Pole, which was endlessly confusing for nearly everyone.
We had all kinds of plans for what to do with this, which obviously we never had a chance to follow through on. One of my favorites was the notion that if you walked along the top (west) wall enough, eventually you’d find a door, and if you went through this door you’d find yourself in a control room of some kind, with all kinds of control panels and switches and whatnot. What these switches would do would not be obvious, but in fact they’d control things like the lights and the day/night cycle in different parts of the world, the color palette in various places, the prices of things, etc. Also, each of the cities had a little backstory that explained its name and what kinds of things you might expect to find there. If I run across that document I’ll post it here too.
April 29, 2014
Troll Indulgences: Virtual Goods Patent Gutted [7,076,445]
Another terrible virtual currency/goods patent has been rightfully destroyed - this time in an unusual (but worthy) way: From Law360: EA, Zynga Beat Gametek Video Game Purchases Patent Suit, By Michael Lipkin
Law360, Los Angeles (April 25, 2014, 7:20 PM ET) — A California federal judge on Friday sided with Electronic Arts Inc., Zynga Inc. and two other video game companies, agreeing to toss a series of Gametek LLC suits accusing them of infringing its patent on in-game purchases because the patent covers an abstract idea. … “Despite the presumption that every issued patent is valid, this appears to be the rare case in which the defendants have met their burden at the pleadings stage to show by clear and convincing evidence that the ’445 patent claims an unpatentable abstract idea,” the opinion said.
The very first thing I thought when I saw this patent was: “Indulgences! They’re suing for Indulgences? The prior art goes back centuries!” It wasn’t much of a stretch, given the text of the patent contains this little fragment (which refers to the image at the head of this post):
Alternatively, in an illustrative non-computing application of the present invention, organizations or institutions may elect to offer and monetize non-computing environment features and/or elements (e.g. pay for the right to drive above the speed limit) by charging participating users fees for these environment features and/or elements.
WTF? Looks like reasoning something along those lines was used to nuke this stinker out of existence. It is quite unusual for a patent to be tossed out in court. Usually the invalidation process has to take a separate track, as it has with other cases I’ve helped with, such as The Word Balloon Patent. I’m very glad to see this happen – not just for the defendant, but for the industry as a whole. Just adding “on a computer [network]” to existing abstract processes doesn’t make them intellectual property! Hopefully this precedent will help kill other bad cases in the pipeline already…
March 5, 2014
Two Recipes for Stone Soup [A Fable of Pre-Funding Startups]
There once was a young Zen master, who had earned a decent name for himself throughout the land. He was not famous, but many of his peers knew of his reputation for being wise and fair. During his career, he was renowned for his loyalty to whatever dojo he was attached to, usually for many years at a time. One year his patronage decided to merge with another, larger dojo, and the young master found himself unexpectedly looking for a new livelihood. But he was not desperate, as he’d heeded the words of his mentor and had kept close contact with many other Zen masters over the years and considered many options.
As word spread about the young master’s availability, he began to receive more interest than he could possibly ever fulfill. It took all of his Zen training and long nights just to keep up with the correspondence and meetings. He was getting queries from well-established cooperatives, various governments, charitable groups, many recently formed houses, and even more people who had a grand idea around which to form a whole-new kind of dojo. This latter category was intriguing, but the most fraught with peril. There were too many people with too many ideas for the young master to sort between. So he decided to consult with his mentor. At least one more time, he would be the apprentice and ventured forth to the dojo of his youth, a half-day’s journey away.
“Master, the road ahead is filled with many choices, some are well traveled roads and others are merely slight indentations in the grass that may some day become paths. How can I choose?” asked the apprentice.
The mentor replied, “Have you considered the wide roads and the state-maintained roads?”
“Yes, I know them well and have many reasons to continue on one of them, but these untrodden paths still call to me. It is as if there is a man with his hands at his mouth standing at each one shouting to follow his new path to riches and glory. How do I sort out the truth of their words?” The young master was genuinely perplexed.
“You are wise, my son, to seek council on this matter — as sweet smelling words are enticing indeed and could lead you down a path of ruin or great fortune. Recount to me now two of the recruiting stories that you have heard and I will advise you.” The mentor’s face relaxed and his eyes closed as he dropped into thought, which was exactly what the young master needed to calm himself sufficiently to relate the stories.
After the mentor had heard the stories, he continued meditating for several minutes before speaking again: “Former apprentice, do you recall the story and lesson of Stone Soup?”
“Yes, master. We learned it as young adepts. It is the story of a man who pretended that he had a magic stone for making the world’s best soup, which he then used to convince others to contribute ingredients to the broth until a delicious brew was made. This story was about how leadership and an idea can ease people into cooperating to create great things for the good of them all.” recounted the student. “I can see the similarity between the callers standing on the new paths and the man with the magic stone. Also it is clear that that the ingredients are symbolic of the skills of the potential recruits. But, I don’t see how that helps me.” The apprentice had many years of experience with the mentor, and knew that this challenge would get the answer he was looking for.
“The stories you told me are two different recipes for Stone Soup,” the master started.
“The first caller was a man with a certain and impressive voice that said to you ‘You should join my dojo! It is like none other and it is a good and easy path that will lead to great riches. Many people that you know, such as Haruko and Jin, have tested this path and others who have great reputations including Master Po and Teacher Win are going to walk upon it as well. Your reputation would be invaluable to our venture. Join us now!’”
“The second caller was a humble and uncertain man who spoke softly as he said ‘You should join my dojo. It is like none other and the path, though potentially fraught with peril, could lead to riches if the right combination of people were to take to it. Your reputation is well known, and if you were to join the party, the chance of success would increase greatly. Would you consider meeting here in two days time to talk to others to discuss our goals and to see if a suitable party could be formed? Even if you don’t join us, any advice you have would be invaluable.” The mentor paused to see if his former student understood.
The young master said “I don’t see much difference, other than the second man seems the weaker.”
The mentor suppressed a sigh. Clearly this visit would not have been necessary if the young master were able to see this himself. Besides, it was good to see his student again and to be discussing such a wealth of opportunities.
He resumed, “Remember the parable of Stone Soup. The first man did not. He recited many names as if those names carried the weight of the reputations of their owners. He has forgotten the objective of the parable: The Soup. It is not the names or reputations of the people who placed the ingredients into the soup that mattered. It was that the soup needed the ingredients and the people added them anonymously, in exchange for a bowl of the broth. The first man merely suggested that important people were committed to the journey. I am quite certain that, were you to ask Haruko and Jin what names they have heard as being associated with the proposed dojo, you would find that your name was provided as a reference without your knowledge or consent.”
The student clearly became agitated as the truth of his mentor’s words sunk in. There was work to do before the day was done in order to repair any damage to his reputation that speaking with the first man may have caused.
The mentor continued, “The first recipe for Stone Soup is The Braggarts Brew. It tastes just like hot water because when everyone finds out that the founder is a liar, they all recover whatever ingredients they can to take them home and try to dry them out.”
The mentor took a quick drink, but gave a quelling glance that told the apprentice to remain silent until the lesson was over.
“You called the second man weaker, but his weakness is like that of the man with the Stone from the parable. He keeps his eyes on the goal — creating the Soup or staffing his dojo. Without excellent ingredients, there will be no success; and the best way to get them is to appeal to the better nature of those who possess them. He, by listening to them, transforms the dojo into a community project — which many contribute to, even if only a little bit.”
“Your skills, young master, are impressive on their own. You need not compare yourself with others, nor should you be impressed with one who would so trivially invoke the reputation of others, as if they were magic words in some charm.”
“The second recipe for Stone Soup is Humble Chowder, seasoned with a healthy dash of realism. This is the tempting broth.” And the mentor was finished.
The apprentice jumped up — “Master! I am so thankful! I knew that coming to you would help me see the truth. And now, I see a greater truth — you are also the man with a Stone. Please tell me what I can contribute to your Soup.”
“Choose your next course wisely, and return to me with the story so that I may share it with the next class of students.”
And with that, the young master ran as quickly as he could to catch up with the group meeting about the second man’s dojo. He wasn’t certain if he’d join them, but the honor of being able to contribute to its foundation would enough payment for now. When he approached the seated group, he was delighted to see several people whose reputation he respected around the fire, discussing amazing possibilities. One of them was Jin, who was shocked to learn that the first man had given his name to the young master…
[This is a long-lost post, originally posted on our old site six years go. Once again, the internet archive to the rescue!]
February 21, 2014
White Paper: 5 Questions for Selecting an Online Community Platform
Today, we’re proud to announce a project that’s been in the works for a while: A collaboration with Community Pioneer F. Randall Farmer to produce this exclusive white paper – “Five Questions for Selecting an Online Community Platform.”
Randy is co-host of the Social Media Clarity podcast, a prolific social media innovator, and literally co-wrote the book on Building Web Reputation Systems. We were very excited to bring him on board for this much needed project. While there are numerous books, blogs, and white papers out there to help Community Managers grow and manage their communities, there’s no true guide to how to pick the right kind of platform for your community.
In this white paper, Randy has developed five key questions that can help determine what platform suits your community best. This platform agnostic guide covers top level content permissions, contributor identity, community size, costs, and infrastructure. It truly is the first guide of its kind and we’re delighted to share it with you.
Go to the Cultivating Community post to get the paper.
December 19, 2013
Audio version of classic “BlockChat” post is up!
On the Social Media Clarity Podcast, we’re trying a new rotational format for episodes: “Stories from the Vault” – and the inaugural tale is a reading of the May 2007 post The Untold History of Toontown’s SpeedChat (or BlockChattm from Disney finally arrives)
Link to podcast episode page[sc_embed_player fileurl="http://traffic.libsyn.com/socialmediaclarity/138068-disney-s-hercworld-toontown-and-blockchat-tm-s01e08.mp3"]
October 30, 2013
Origin of Avatars, MMOs, and Freemium
The latest episode of the Social Media Clarity Podcast contains an interview with Chip Morningstar (and podcast hosts: Randy Farmer and Scott Moore). This segment focuses on the emergent social phenomenon encountered the first time people used avatars with virtual currency, and artificial scarcity.
Links and transcription at http://socialmediaclarity.net
August 26, 2013
Randy’s Got a Podcast: Social Media Clarity
I’ve teamed up with Bryce Glass and Marc Smith to create a podcast – here’s the link and the blurb:
Social Media Clarity - 15 minutes of concentrated analysis and advice about social media in platform and product design.
First episode contents:
News: Rumor – Facebook is about to limit 3rd party app access to user data!
Topic: What is a social network, why should a product designer care, and where do you get one?
Tip: NodeXL – Instant Social Network Analysis
August 23, 2013
Patents and Software and Trials, Oh My! An Inventor’s View
What does almost 20 years of software patents yield? You’d be surprised!
I gave an Ignite talk (5 minutes: 20 slides advancing every 15 seconds) entitled
“Patents and Software and Trials, Oh My! An Inventor’s View”
Here’s some improved links…
I’ve created ip-reform.org to support the “I Won’t Sign Bogus Patents” pledge.
Encourage your company to adopt Twitter’s Inventor’s Patent Agreement
Sequestration has delayed a bay area PTO office, support this bill
I gave the talk twice, and the second version is also available (shows me giving the talk and static versions of my slides…) – watch that here:
August 2, 2013
Armed and Dangerous
[This is a repost from my long-dead Yahoo 360 blog, originally posted August 2006 about events in spring 2002. I decided to recover this posting from the Internet Archive because recent events, 12 years after 9/11, show that the authorities are STILL over-panicking about our security.]
How could I know that singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” in public could be considered a terrorist weapon?
One early spring evening in 2002 I went for a walk in my neighborhood wearing my FDNY September 11th Memorial T-Shirt (shown above), telling my family that I would return just after sundown (about 30 minutes).
About an hour and a half later I arrived at home teasing them by explaining that I’d “ just been handcuffed, interrogated, searched, had a machine gun pointed directly at me, been ordered to my knees two feet from a K-9 gnashing it’s teeth, and was nearly arrested as a terrorist … all just for singing out loud.”
My family didn’t believe me at first – until I showed them the reddened cuff marks on my wrists and the business card of PAPD Sergeant, Sandra Brown.
Now they wanted to hear the whole story…
One mild spring evening in 2002, I felt like singing. I wanted to teach myself some bluegrass and spirituals that I’d discovered recently (mostly as the result of recently seeing O Brother Where Art Thou?) and I felt like being real loud. So, rather than disturb by family, I decided to go for a walk and practice elsewhere. Given the weather, I’d only need a tshirt and jeans to keep me warm until well past sundown. I started singing right away when I got outside, but then noticed some of my neighbors, so I thought that it’d be better if I could find a place to belt out my baritone/bass tones where no one would care if I were in tune. I was practicing, after all.
“The pedestrian walkway over 101 would be perfect”, I thought, “with any luck I’ll be completely drowned out.”
I’d made good time hiking to the pedestrian overpass, humming “Ahhhh am a maaaaan, of con-stant sah-roooow…” along the way. By the time I reached the apex of the passage, the sun was very low in the west dropping just below the hills. The gold-purple sky was an inspirational sight. The constant breeze from the cars whizzing by below was quite effective in carrying my voice away, so I cranked up the volume. I was having a great time and expanded my material to include my favorite Webber show tunes. Other than a pair of guys walking by, my only audience was the late evening commuters most of who had just turned on their headlights. It was a blast. For 15 minutes I was able to belt out anything I wanted, as loud as I could.
When I was starting to feel the effects of singing continuously that loudly the sun had completely set, so I decided to head home. I was running a little later than I’d expected, so I increased my gait a just bit.
As my stride increased (mostly due to gravity) on my way down the sloped ramp back into the neighborhood, directly in front of me appeared two Palo Alto police officers who had just started their way up the ramp. Just a moment after I noticed them, they noticed me, and then did something very, very, strange. They quickly walked backward away from me until they were out of sight, around the corner, at the base of the ramp. I’d never seen anyone do anything like that before. How on earth could I intimidate two police officers just by walking down a pedestrian ramp? As I proceeded down to the exit I called out loud: “HELLO? Is everything alright?”
As I came to the bottom and walked around the corner there were about a half dozen of Palo Alto’s finest, one with what looked like an M-16 and others with pistols pointed directly at me. There was much yelling and I see and hear a dog barking threateningly – “Don’t move!” “Turn Around!” “Get Down!” “Put your hands where we can see them!” “Bark! Bark! [Jangling of a large dog chain.]”
I wasted no time at all, I put my hands in the air and turned my back to them. I kneeled, quickly enough that it hurt. “I think there’s been some mistake, whatever you do, please don’t let go of that dog” is all I could think to say at the moment. I had no idea what the heck was going on, but I didn’t want to give them any reason to make a horrible mistake.
“Who are you?” “Where are you from?” “What are you doing here?” “What are you carrying?” were the rapid-fire questions I can remember. I quickly explained that I was on a walk, singing songs. “The only thing I’m carrying is my wallet, which shows I live two blocks from here”, I said, still kneeling, I didn’t even have my house keys. “Take it out and toss it on the ground, but move very slowly”, said a woman who seemed to be in command of situation, She was to my left, but still behind me where I couldn’t see her. Very, very cautiously, I complied. “Do you have anything else?”, the request was rather urgent and sounded specific. “No. Nothing.”
An officer came up and handcuffed my wrists behind my back, aggressively patted me down, and helped me to my feet. My wallet was retrieved the commander-woman. Once I could face the squad again, I clearly recognized her as Sandra Brown, an officer who had done many hours as a bicycle-beat cop in the downtown Palo Alto area, where my family had spent nearly every Friday evening for nearly 14 years. I was hoping that this meant she might recognize me as well, helping to diffuse whatever this horrible mess was all about.
She walked me over to the back of her police cruiser, pressing me back on the trunk hard enough that my handcuffed wrists were pressed into the car metal enough to let me know that I wasn’t going to be going anywhere without her permission. She grabbed the walky-talky that I hadn’t previously noticed had been set on the roof of the car and spoke into it “(muffled) check in. Anything?”. I couldn’t make out the response, but the meaning was made clear to me immediately when she asked:
“Did you go all the way across the overpass?” “No.”
“Did you see anyone else up there?” “Just two guys that walked by about 20 minutes ago. Nothing unusual.”
“Where did you put it?” “Put what? I didn’t have anything.”
“Did you leave behind any clothing” “Clothing? What? No.”
Fifteen to twenty minutes passed. Officer Brown checked my ID and confirmed that I’m local. She noticed my shirt for the first time. The cuffs were starting to hurt. I’d been told to be quiet. The sturdy, but small blond woman with the assault rifle was keeping it at-the-ready, but it isn’t pointing at me. The dog had stopped barking, but was at some kind of station-keeping pose. Lots more radio traffic. I finally piece together that at least two officers were on the other side of the ramp are looking for something, something that they think I might have hidden there, something critical to this situation.
Finally, the invisible officers at the other end of the radio apparently gave up the search. My heart stopped racing. My temperature started to drop. You see, I finally stopped thinking that I’m likely to end up wounded or dead due to someone panicking.
Once the search is over, it became clear that maybe the situation was not what they had expected/feared. Officer Brown started to explain: “We got a phone call from someone on a cel-phone driving on 101 reporting a sniper, wearing a trench coat, was shooting at cars with a high-powered rifle or machine gun.” Apparently this triggered the Palo Alto equivalent of the swat team.
I couldn’t resist: “An overweight middle-aged man, singing the lead from The Phantom of the Opera (probably waving his arms about, crooning to Christine about being ‘inside her mind’), while wearing jeans and a tshirt that reads All Gave Some, Some Gave All on the back, somehow looks like a Columbine kid terrorizing the freeway with an automatic weapon? What irony: Wear a public-safety-supporting tshirt, get suspected of being a sniper.”. This observation did get a bit of a giggle out of the one with the real Tommy gun, finally hanging peacefully at her side.
I was feeling a little put out: “One call with such a vague description gets this level of response? Did 9/11 really turn us all into people looking for a terrorist behind every darkened corner? A trench coat? This is pretty unbelievable.” I was starting to get very sore about my wrist pain. “We’re sorry, we need to be extra cautious in situations such as these, if it had turned out to be true… In any case, you’ll have a great story to tell your kids and grandkids.”
“True. Can I get out of these now?” There were a few more rounds on the radio, getting a final approval to release me. Rubbing my wrists I share, “You know, my family will never believe me when I tell them that this happened. Do you have one of those Palo Alto Officer trading cards our kids got at school a few years ago?” Turned out that they were out of print, but Officer Brown did have a standard issue business card, which she gave me as they wished me well and I started walking home. [I know I still have it around here somewhere.]
Other than practicing the first of many tellings of this story on the way home, I have never forgotten that the fear generated by the terrorist attacks on 9/11 had changed our world forever. I don’t think that driver would have ever made such are report if this had all occurred one year earlier.
Fortunately for me, the police still are trained to get things right before they themselves start shooting reported terrorists.
“I am a man of constant sorrow. I’ve seen trouble – all my days.”
July 25, 2012
Forward looking statements
People say things to other people all the time that are misinterpreted or misunderstood; this is a normal part of life as a social animal. But this is especially true of things people say about the future, what the securities business calls “forward looking statements”. Statements about the future are marvelous sources of chaos and confusion because the future is intrinsically uncertain. The inevitable divergence between what someone said at one time and what actually happened at a later time invites all kinds of reinterpretation and second guessing and finger pointing, well beyond the usual muddle that is an ordinary part of human social interaction.
Because people in an organization are trying to coordinate purposeful and often complex tasks over time, forward looking statements make up a large fraction of intra-organizational communications, a larger fraction than I think is typical in purely social or familial interactions. Over the years I’ve learned that I often have to train people I’m working with on the distinction between three related but very different kinds of forward looking statements: plans, predictions, and promises. In my experience, somebody treating one of these as one of the others can be a significant generator of interpersonal discord and organizational dysfunction.
In particular we make a lot these kinds of statements to people to whom we are in some way accountable, such as managers and executives up the chain of command, but also, notably, investors. We also make these kinds of statements to peers and subordinates, but somehow I’ve found that the most chaotic and damaging effects of misunderstandings about what something really meant tend to happen when communicating upward in a power relationship. Consequently, reinforcing a clear understanding of these distinctions has become part of my standard routine for breaking in new bosses.
The distinctions are subtle, but important:
- Plans are about intention
- Predictions are about expectation
- Promises are about commitment
A plan is a prospective guide to action. A plan can be wrong (moreover, it can be known to be wrong) and yet be still useful. A plan is often an approximation or even wild a guess. However, if you are in a high state of ignorance and yet trying to take purposeful action, you have to start somewhere. As George Patton famously said, “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” Plans can readily change, because over time you learn things, particularly as a side effect of trying to execute the plan itself. In fact, in my line of work, if your plans aren’t changing relatively frequently you’re probably doing something wrong. Plans typically concern matters that are within your own sphere of control: “first I will do this, then I will do that”.
A prediction is declaration about what you think will happen. A prediction may very well encompass elements that are beyond your control. A prediction will often incorporate, if only implicitly, some model or theory or idea you have about how some part of the world works. When making a prediction, you are offering somebody else the benefit of your knowledge and analysis, so it can be beneficial to articulate your reasons for believing as you do. Like plans, predictions can change, but the reasons for change are different: a prediction can change if external facts change, or if you discover some shortcoming in your analysis. Thus it may also be important to be explicit and articulate when you change a prediction: explain why. Unlike a plan, a prediction that is just a wild guess is largely worthless, though a prediction that is the product of an inarticulable intuition may still be useful (but if so, in some sense it’s not really a wild guess — though it’s a valuable and rare skill to be able to reliably distinguish the times you are going with your gut from the times you are just stabbing in the dark).
A promise is a statement that you grant other people the right to treat as a fact that they can rely on, as they figure out their own actions and make plans, predictions, and promises of their own. A promise is a positive assertion that you will or will not do something specific. A promise is not something that generally changes; a promise is either kept or not kept. A change in circumstances may render a promise unkeepable or inappropriate, however. People put a lot of moral weight on promises, because accepting a promise requires trust. Because trust is involved, a broken promise can have emotional and organizational consequences that go beyond the direct practical effects of whatever contrary thing was or was not done. I could go on at length about the moral and emotional dimensions, but it would be a digression right now. The short version is: promises carry a lot of baggage.
On their face, these three kinds of things are all simply declarations about the future, and there’s nothing innate that necessarily marks which of these a given statement is: “I will mow the lawn tomorrow” could legitimately be taken as any one of the three. The differences have to do not with the form of the statement but with the intent. The reason the distinctions remain important, however, is because serious trouble can result when somebody says something intended as one of these categories, and somebody else interprets it as one of the others. The reasons for this sort of misinterpretation are varied and probably infinite: the person who said it was unclear what they meant, the person who heard it wasn’t paying attention, or misunderstood, or had different background assumptions, or was simply clueless. Sometimes the misinterpretation is deliberate and willful; this is especially destructive.
These categories are not pure. That is, a single statement is not necessarily 100% one of these things and 0% either of the others. A statement can be a mixture. However, having the parties at both ends of the communication be clear on what was intended is still essential.
There are many different ways trouble can result from interpreting a statement of one of these types as one of the others.
Treating a plan as if it were a prediction invites confusion and mayhem if the plan changes. The normal evolution of a project can be seen as evidence of problems where none actually exist: “You said you were going to do A and instead you did B. Why did you say you were going to do A? Do you really know what you are doing? Please explain.” A lot of time and energy can be dissipated accounting for changes to people for whom the changes weren’t actually important.
During the last year of the Habitat project, we reached the point were the product was fundamentally complete but it had a lot of bugs. The bug list became our main planning tool: each bug was assigned a priority and a rough time estimate, and the bug list was the thing that each developer looked to to decide what to do next. I call it a bug list, but not everything on it was, strictly speaking, a bug. Some things were tasks that we’d like to get done that needed to be balanced against the debugging work, and other things were just stuff that could be made better if we spent the time or resources. Since the world is constantly changing and we are constantly learning, a fairly common pattern was for a task to be identified and put on the list, and then gradually drift into some form of irrelevance as the shape of the system evolved or operational experience gave us feedback about what was really important. This kind of drift and accompanying deprioritization is a process that every developer should be familiar with.
Perversely, we found ourselves keeping multiple uncoordinated bug lists. As the project matured we acquired a product manager, who was a well intentioned but ultimately useless detail freak. In an attempt to track the status of the project, in hopes of answering management’s eternal question, “when is it going to be done?”, she’d convene status meetings wherein she’d try to use the bug list as checklist. Every couple of days we’d spend several hours going through these items, and all the dross that we’d been ignoring because it was irrelevant or pointless became a topic for discussion, and “never mind that” was never an acceptable way to dispose of these items. Her reasoning was that if something had been important enough to get put on the list, it shouldn’t be taken off without due consideration. Since she wasn’t the person doing the work and so didn’t understand a lot of the particulars, everything had to be argued and debated and explained, wasting many hours of time. Plus, she’d be adding up all the time estimates for these random and vague things and freaking out because the total was wildly unreasonable — never mind that the estimates were engineers’ guesses to begin with and many of these tasks would never be done anyway. And on top of all that, a lot of these status meetings were teleconferences with our partners at QuantumLink, where each of these irrelevant items got unfolded into even more useless discussion and became the basis for lots of interorganizational dispute. So we found ourselves developing the defensive habit of keeping private todo lists of tasks we’d identified that we didn’t want to have to spend hours debating, and everybody made up their own plan.
The consequence of all of this was that a whole lot of planning activity was taking place off the books, so when the work got done it meant that lots of resources were spent on things that never showed up in the official project plan and could not be accounted for. It also meant that each of us had much fuzzier than necessary picture of what the others were doing, and management had a worse picture than that.
Nearly every experienced developer I know has his or her own variation of this story. Many of us have several.
A plan that is treated as a promise is even worse than one treated as a prediction. A normal change of plan can become an invitation to recrimination or outright hostility or even punishment. Plans treated as promises are at the root of many of the most awful cases of organization dysfunction I’ve ever experienced.
One of the projects I worked on at Yahoo! (to protect the guilty I will refrain from naming names) actually kept two schedules: the official schedule, for showing to upper management (the promise), and the real schedule, for day to day use by the people doing the work (the plan). As the project evolved, these two diverged ever more sharply, until the picture that upper management was getting became a complete and utter fantasy. At one level, the problem was that the person running the project was a craven coward, afraid of telling the truth to his superiors because he knew they wouldn’t like it (the real schedule said that things were going to take a lot longer than the Potemkin schedule said — funny how it never seems to go the other way). But at another level, the deeper problem was that the higher echelon people persisted in treating any forward looking statement by their subordinates as a promise, which made planning impossible.
Treating a prediction as a promise holds someone responsible for the consequences of their analysis rather than for the quality of the analysis itself. Even if someone has some control over whether a prediction comes true or not, the mere act of making a prediction should not carry with it the obligation to intervene to ensure the outcome. Many predictions are conditional, statements of the form “if A happens then B will happen”; this does not mean that someone who says this is now committed to making A happen. Indeed, as with plans, changes in circumstances can render a prediction wrong or irrelevant. It may be more constructive to adapt to the changed reality than to try to bend reality just to preserve the prediction.
Treating a prediction as a promise often leads to people being held responsible for things they have no control over. Putting people in this sort of bind is a classic cause of various forms of mental illness. Aside from being basically useless and stupid, this is great a way to make people hate you, and you’d deserve it. Nevertheless, how many of us have experienced a boss refusing to hear that something can’t be done, even when it really couldn’t?
Treating a prediction as a promise abdicates responsibility. If you are obligated to produce some outcome and fail because some prediction you relied on turns out to have been wrong, it is still your fault. It was you who chose to rely on the prediction. Government and big business both do this all the time, trying to duck accountability for mismanagement or malfeasance by pointing at external estimates or projections gone wrong (indeed, at times it seems like the Congressional Budget Office was established principally to enable politicians to use this particular dodge).
The failure modes just discussed are the worst, because each, in one form or another, imputes causality that isn’t really there. The other possible category confusions can still be disruptive, however, by jumbling the mental models people use to make sense of the world.
If you treat someone’s promise or prediction as a plan, it means you are pretending they have a plan when they might not. You are confusing ends with means. Sometimes, of course, you don’t care what their plan is, and sometimes it’s none of your business anyway, but in such cases you should know that you are banking on the quality of their analysis or of their commitment, and not on a fantasy model of what they are doing.
If you treat someone’s promise as a prediction, you risk using the wrong grounds to assess the validity of their statement. You consider the trustworthiness of a prediction by looking at the predictor’s knowledge and analytic ability, whereas a promise is evaluated by looking at the promisor’s incentives and their ability to execute the relevant tasks. These two pathways to assessment are wildly different, and so if you use one when you should use the other you are in danger of getting the wrong answer.
There are already plenty enough ways for organizational relationships to go off the rails without adding the various nasty species of communications failures I’ve described here. However, I don’t think it’s sufficient to just exhort everyone to try to be clearer. Managers, in particular, need to be aware of these failure modes and press for clarity when somebody says something forward looking and the category it belongs in is uncertain. Because humans tend to like certitude, many managers have a bias towards interpreting the things people say as constraining the future more than they actually do. If they do this a lot, it teaches their subordinates to be stingy with their knowledge, timid in their public outlook, and even sometimes to lie defensively. All of these things are corrosive to success.