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May 4, 2009

How important is WolframAlpha?

The Independent calls WolframAlpha “An invention that could change the Internet forever.” It concludes: “Wolfram Alpha has the potential to become one of the biggest names on the planet.”

Nova Spivak, a smart Semantic Web guy, says it could be as important as Google.

Ton Zijlstra, on the other hand, who knows a thing or two about knowledge and knowledge management, feels like it’s been overhyped. After seeing the video of Wolfram talking at Harvard, Ton writes:

No crawling? Centralized database, adding data from partners? Manual updating? Adding is tricky? Manually adding metadata (curating)? For all its coolness on the front of WolframAlpha, on the back end this sounds like it’s the mechanical turk of the semantic web.

(“The mechanical turk of the semantic web.” Great phrase. And while I’m in parentheses, ReadWriteWeb has useful screenshots of WolframAlpha, and here’s my unedited 55-minute interview with Wolfram.)

I am somewhere in between, definitely over in the Enthusiastic half of the field. I think WolframAlpha [WA] will become a standard part of the Internet’s tool set, but is not transformative.

WA works because it’s curated. Real human beings decide what topics to include (geography but not 6 Degrees of Courtney Love), which data to ingest, what metadata is worth capturing, how that metadata is interrelated (= an ontology), which correlations to present to the user when she queries it (daily tonnage of fish captured by the French compared to daily production of garbage in NYC), and how that information should be presented. Wolfram insists that an expert be present in each data stream to ensure the quality of the data. Given all that human intervention, WA then performs its algorithmic computations … which are themselves curated. WA is as curated as an almanac.

Curation is a source of its strength. It increases the reliability of the information, it enables the computations, and it lets the results pages present interesting and relevant information far beyond the simple factual answer to the question. The richness of those pages will be big factor in the site’s success.

Curation is also WA’s limitation. If it stays purely curated, without areas in which the Big Anyone can contribute, it won’t be able to grow at Internet speeds. Someone with a good idea — provide info on meds and interactions, or add recipes so ingredients can be mashed up with nutritional and ecological info — will have to suggest it to WolframAlpha, Inc. and hope they take it up. (You could to this sorta kinda through the API, but not get the scaling effects of actually adding data to the system.) And WA will suffer from the perspectival problems inevitable in all curated systems: WA reflects Stephen Wolfram’s interests and perspective. It covers what he thinks is interesting. It covers it from his point of view. It will have to make decisions on topics for which there are no good answers: Is Pluto a planet? Does Scientology go on the list of religions? Does the page on rabbits include nutritional information about rabbit meat? (That, by the way, was Wolfram’s example in my interview of him. If you look at the site from Europe, a “rabbit” query does include the nutritional info, but not if you log in from a US IP address.) But WA doesn’t have to scale up to Internet Supersize to be supersized useful.

So, given those strengths and limitations, how important is WA?

Once people figure out what types of questions it’s good at, I think it will become a standard part of our tools, and for some areas of inquiry, it may be indispensable. I don’t know those areas well enough to give an example that will hold up, but I can imagine WA becoming the first place geneticists go when they have a question about a gene sequence or chemists who want to know about a molecule. I think it is likely to be so useful within particular fields that it becomes the standard place to look first…Like IMDB.com for movies, except for broad, multiple fields, with the ability to cross-compute.

But more broadly, is WA the next Google? Does it transform the Internet?

I don’t think so. Its computational abilities mean it does something not currently done (or not done well enough for a crowd of users), and the aesthetics of its responses make it quite accessible. But how many computational questions do you have a day? If you want to know how many tons of fish France catches, WA will work as an almanac. But that’s not transformational. If you want to know how many tons divided by the average weight of a French person, WA is for you. But the computational uses that are distinctive of WA and for which WA will frequently be an astounding tool are not frequent enough for WA to be transformational on the order of a Google or Wikipedia.

There are at least two other ways it could be transformational, however.

First, its biggest effect may be on metadata. If WA takes off, as I suspect it will, people and organizations will want to get their data into it. But to contribute their data, they will have to put it into WA’s metadata schema. Those schema then become a standard way we organize data. WA could be the killer app of the Semantic Web … the app that gives people both a motive for putting their data into ontologies and a standardized set of ontologies that makes it easy to do so.

Second, a robust computational engine with access to a very wide array of data is a new idea on the Internet. (Ok, nothing is new. But WA is going to bring this idea to mainstream awareness.) That transforms our expectations, just as Wikipedia is important not just because it’s a great encyclopedia but because it proved the power of collaborative crowds. But, WA’s lesson — there’s more that can be computed than we ever imagined — isn’t as counter-intuitive as Wikipedia’s, so it is not as apple-cart-upsetting, so it’s not as transformational. Our cultural reaction to Wikipedia is to be amazed by what we’ve done. With WA, we are likely to be amazed by what Wolfram has done.

That is the final reason why I think WA is not likely to be as big a deal as Google or Wikipedia, and I say this while being enthusiastic — wowed, even — about WA. WA’s big benefit is that it answers questions authoritatively. WA nails facts down. (Please take the discussion about facts in a postmodern age into the comments section. Thank you.) It thus ends conversation. Google and Wikipedia aim at continuing and even provoking conversation. They are rich with links and pointers. Even as Wikipedia provides a narrative that it hopes is reliable, it takes every opportunity to get you to go to a new page. WA does have links — including links to Wikipedia — but most are hidden one click below the surface. So, the distinction I’m drawing is far from absolute. Nevertheless, it seems right to me: WA is designed to get you out of a state of doubt by showing you a simple, accurate, reliable, true answer to your question. That’s an important service, but answers can be dead-ends on the Web: you get your answer and get off. WA as question-answerer bookends WA’s curated creation process: A relatively (not totally) closed process that has a great deal of value, but keeps it from the participatory model that generally has had the biggest effects on the Net.

Providing solid, reliable answers to difficult questions is hugely valuable. WolframAlpha’s approach is ambitious and brilliant. WolframAlpha is a genius. But that’s not enough to fundamentally alter the Net.

Nevertheless, I am wowed.[Tags: ]

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January 29, 2009

David Pogue twitters in public

David Pogue, the NY Times’ tech-for-the-people guy, did a little experiment when giving at talk in Las Vegas: To demo Twitter, he live-twittered a request for hiccup cures. It’s an amusing list of tweets, with a twist in the road in the second half…

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January 13, 2009

[berkman] Berkman lunch: Andrew McAfee on Enterprise 2.0

Andrew McAfee, the Enterprise 2.0 guy, is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk. He begins by defining the term as “the use of emergent social software platforms by organizations in pursuit of their goals.” This technology tends to be emergent, bottom up, etc. [NOTE: I’m live blogging, making mistakes, missing stuff, creating typos, etc. Reader beware.] He contrasts this with ERP systems that are top-down, highly specific, etc. “The huge shift” is that the 2.0 tools “make an effort to get out of the way of the users at the front” but then allow structure to emerge.

“The Net is the world’s largest library. The problem is that all the books are on the floor,” he says, citing an old saw.

Companies are interested in what’s going on because they’ve used Wikipedia or their kids are on Facebook. But companies want to know what the tools are and how they’re different. Also, they ask, “Why do I care?” What’s in it for me as a pragmatic businessperson, they ask.

To answer these questions, Andrew points to what a knowledge worker’s view of the enterprise is, from the inside. At the core are a small group of people with whom she has strong ties. Then there’s a larger group of people with whom she has weak ties. Then there’s a set of people the knowledge worker should be tied to, but is not. [He draws concentric circles.]

Three points.
1. We spend a lot of time strengthening ties that are already strong.

2. The weaker and potential ties are hugely important. (He cites The Strength of Weak Ties.)

3. Classically inside orgs, “we’ve had lousy technology,” particularly at the outer two rings. How do you keep track of your weak ties? (One solution, he says, is the Christmas-time newsletter from acquaintances.) Corporate directories try to highlight expertise to enhance the third ring, but they don’t work well. Instead, people work their networks.


There’s a fourth ring: Where there are no ties. Strangers who are not going to form any professional bond. But 2.0 enables them to come together for “powerful outcomes.”

Now Andrew looks at prototypical technologies available for each of the four rings. (He notes that these technologies are useful only at those rings.)

1. Strong ties: Wikis, Google Docs, etc. About 2/3 of traditional folks do this by sending email attachments around, but no one is happy about it. Example: VistaPrint Wiki: 18 months, 280 registered users, 12,000 topics, 77,000 page edits.

2. Weak ties: Social networking software. Various social networking tools let you link up networks, e.g., Tweets that point elsewhere. E.g., Facebook at Serena: 90% penetration, 50% active users. Helped with new hires.

Potential ties: Blogosphere. Blogging is “narrating your work.” Add a search engine and you can find others interested in the same things. E.g., Intrawest. Andrew points to a post about radiant heated floors, with some helpful commenting, etc. [Great example.] Another example: The 16 US intelligence agencies have installed 2.0 tools, such as Intellipedia, blogging, tagging, etc. This gives access to a pool of info, but, more important, makes connections among brains.

4. No ties: Prediction markets. E.g., Google’s Prediction Markets, inside of companies. These work even when you don’t have that many traders. “Why do we even have forecasting departments in companies.”

Q: Say more about Google prediction markets?
A: [Andrew gives some examples. He talks very quickly.]

Q: [gene] Would prediction markets work less effectively if there weren’t pollsters and forecasting departments? Is this Web 2.0 stuff layered on top of the traditional stuff?
A: Yes, the traders on the Iowa poll are looking at polls. Good point.

Q: Why are these trader markets accurate? Why do we still use polls?
A: Hayek in the middle of the 20th century, when intellectuals were enthralled with collective, said that they had it work. A market’s pricing system is a brilliant system for aggregating and transmitting information, said Hayek. These trader markets work because a massive number of traders express their own preferences, values, beliefs. Polling will become less important. And, yes, people try to manipulate these markets, but so far the attempts don’t work very well.

Q: What does this say about science, e.g., the change from using randomized control trial for doing science? E.g., you could run a wiki instead and process the data…
A: So, why doesn’t Merck just set up a prediction market for whether a drug will work. But the FDA wouldn’t accept it.

Q: [me] If you look at an enterprise as a power structure, how does this play?
A: I ask this of companies all the time, and they tend to say they don’t see it. But it’s probably because they’re not looking deeply at enough. In the intelligence community, they’re explicitly moving from “need to know” to “responsible to share.”
Q: [me] Although in a rigidly and explicitly structure org like intelligence, there isn’t as much jockeying for power by working the network…
A: [Andrew tells of the use of social networking to gain prominence and position in the intelligence community.]

Q: How public, how shareable should this info be?
A: That’s one of the first concerns management teams express. But people don’t need Web 2.0 tools to walk outside the org with confidential info. Web 2.0 does increase the number of people who have access to the info. But, the intelligence community, for example, understands that there’s a risk to not sharing as well. Too many companies close down their connections too much; they tend to stay at the level of the strong ties. That forecloses the possibility that someone in the other part of the organization might have a contribution to make. E.g., Innocentive anonymized problem statements and posted them on the Net for anyone to work on. Eric Raymond: With enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.

Q: What kinds of technologies are likely to be deployed? What types of businesses? What problems?
A: Companies are proud they’ve set up wikis for strongly tied groups, but they’re often walled gardens. Unsurprisingly, tech companies are usually the first to adopt these technologies. It’s not that E2.0 is sweeping all companies, without hesitation or doubt.

Q: Bad behavior?
A: Sure. But there’s also frequently some moderation of bad behavior, in part because inside the org, identity is the default. People generally know how to behave already. “My collection of horror stories is very very thin.”

Q: [doc] Isn’t it really very early. More versions? Fanning out of versions? What?
A: Inside the enterprise, it’s very early days. E2.0 is a prediction. Web 2.0 is much more the norm on the Web. So yes, early days. I find the rise of the Semantic Web as Web 2.0 really really speculative. 2.0 is about people. Web 2.0 is another geek utopia where the machines are in charge and people are out of the way.

Q: I was selling social software solutions to companies in Korea 7 years ago. But after 2-3 years, employees didn’t want to use them because they’re in addition to their work. Is this short term?
A: Socialtext makes a distinction between tools you use in the flow of your job or above the flow. If it’s in the flow, it’ll preserve. If you’re serious about it in your organization, put incentives and measurement in place. Some people I respect say that this is 180 degrees wrong.

Q: When will we see a divergence between those who use these tools and are winning, and those who do not and are not?
A: I’ve been doing research on this. Is IT separating winners from users? Is it irrelevant to competition? It turns out that the more IT an industry consumes, the more winners have been differentiated from users since about the mid 1990s.

[david horvik] There were attempts to drive social tools inward, but the winner was LinkedIn, which is remarkably outwards facing. Are mainstream social products going to be brought in to the enterprise. As for whether investing in IT drives winners, there’s a company selling IT to banks. You’d think this is a bad time. But the banks want optimization and efficiency. The only question is how long it takes for something to be recognized as working. It’s interesting to ask when these social media will become recognized? Is twitter replacing blogging? etc. It evolves so quickly.
A: A lot of the management teams I talk with want the pace of technology to slow down. But that’s not going to happen.

[pistachio] Twitter will be big in enterprises. No?
A: Yes. Great tool for strengthening weak ties and potential ties. And Twitter got the asymmetry right. [I.e., not everyone you follow follows you.] And it’s so lightweight to use — 10 seconds to send out a tweet?
Q: What are companies going to see as the issue?
A: They’ve had to internalize so much. It’s weird and frightening to someone who just wants to make dogfood. It’s going to take longer than 6 months.

[posted without proofreading. sorry.] [Tags: ]

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December 15, 2008

Twalala for Twitterflittering

Mamamusings points to Twalala, which shows you your Twitter stream on your iPhone (of which I don’t have), but includes what look to be some useful filters. For example, you can “mute” someone who perhaps is twittering some event excessively (= me). You can use Twalala in your Web browser, too.

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November 12, 2008

Google flu interview – Request for Help

I’m going to be on the radio news show Here and Now tomorrow to talk about Google.org’s ability to track outbreaks of flu by charting search terms (“flu symptoms”), time, and presumed IP location. I plan on talking about it as an example of the power of having enormous amounts of data, and of putting to use information generated for some other purpose.

Any ideas about how else this sort of technique could be used or is being used? (Amazon’s personalization is a different sort of example.) Any concerns (other than the how-not-to-do-it example from AOL)? [Tags: ]

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October 6, 2008

Web 3.0 has been canceled for lack of linearity

I’ve given a few interviews in Milan where I’ve been for the past two days — what a beautiful city! — and almost every time, someone has asked what Web 3.0 will be. As if I’d know!

If Web 2.0 is about how easy it’s become for people to participate, how easy it has become to mash together disparate applications, and how the “network effect” brings about emergent results, then Web 2.0 is all about making the Net radically unpredictable.

So, the only answer to the question “What will Web 3.0 be?” has to be not only that we don’t know, but that we can’t know.

Web 2.0 also makes it less likely that a single change will sweep the entire Net, for Web 2.0 makes it easier to diversify the Web’s offerings. So Web 2.0 may also spell the end of giving the Web point revision numbers.

In short, if there is a Web 3.0, then Web 2.0 didn’t do its job.

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October 4, 2008

GooseGrade turns us all into nitpickers, not that there’s anything wrong with that

GooseGrade lets readers of a blog highlight mistakes of the copy-edit sort so that the blogger can fix them. It stops spammers by grading each copy-editor based on whether her suggested changes are accepted by the blogger. Here’s a C-NET article about it.

I’d try it at this blog, because I do occasionally (= constantly) make mistakes, but I’m on the road and can’t easily update my template…

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September 19, 2008

[irmc] Government 2.0 and beyond

I’m at the 20th anniversary celebation of the Information Resources Management College of the National Defense University in DC. David Wennergren (Deputy asst secty of defense for info mgt, and DoD deputy chief info officer) is leading a panel on Gov’t 2.0, with Anthony Williams (nGenera, and coauthor of Wikinomics), Bruce Klein (Cisco, US public sector) and Mike Bradshaw (Google, federal sector). [I’m live blogging, making mistakes, being incomplete, mishearing …]

The moderator and the panelists each take a turn at the podium.

David says that Web 2.0 (etc.) is a powerful opportunity “for us to change differently.” Agencies don’t have to be isolated. Mashups, mass collaboration, etc., enable rapid innovation. “We’ve grown up in a world of systems,” big systems. In the new world, we need to be able to “focus and converge.” [David is citing someone else, but I didn’t catch the name.] He refers to the book “Polarity Management.” We have to get both security and sharing right. E.g., focus on secure networks and you create a “self-inflicted denial of service attack” on yourself. [Nice] If you don’t get sharing right, we lose our edge as a nation of innovators.

Anthony Williams (Wikinomics) says he’s been working with governments on e-gov ideas. If we can do Wikipedia, Galaxyzoo, Curriki, there’s no telling what we can do as citizens. The five big ideas: 1. Rethink public service. We still treat citizens as passive recipients. 2. Make sure the information flows horizontally and through all the governmental layers. 3. Open up the boundaries of government, inviting input from citizens, non-profits, private e, etc. 4. New models of democracy, especially interactive models of political communication. 5. Rethink our core institutions, redraw the division of labor. Can we source government services globally?

Bruce (Cisco) talks about how Cisco is using tech to transfer its business. Web 2.0 is about collaboration. Collaboration accelerates productivity, mission success (or growth), and innovation. But it’s more about the culture and the processes than the technology. He shows a crowded slide of how Cisco is using Web 2.0. Their Directory 3.0 includes profiles and areas of expertise. Ciscopedia is an internal wiki. And they have a portal for employees that includes info and apps. Wiki use went up 5x over a year, blogs up 3x, and video up 12x. Cisco is changing from command and control to collaboration and teamwork.

Mike (Google) begins with a title slide that has Google in one corner but that shares the space equally with Skype, Wikipedia, the iPhone, Facebook, AOL, YouTube, the iPod, Second Life, and Bebo. 98% of Google’s revenues come from its free products. Only 2% comes from Mike’s federal group. The cost of switching is zero, he says, so companies have to constantly work on providing good features that are usable without training. “We take that philosophy now to the workplace.” 89% people say they use at least one “unsanctioned” technology at work (Yankee Group). 49% say the tech they have at home is more advanced than what they have at work. He gives some examples of government embracing Web 2.0 tech. E.g., Homeland Security in Alabama used Google Earth as a platform for satellite imagery. Then firefighters started populating it with info about buildings and equipment. Then students started adding info. Etc. He ends by talking about the importance of cloud computing. He compares it to the early corporate resistance to PCs because they were insecure, etc. In addition to providing applications and infrastructure, cloud computing can be a platform (as with Google aps and Salesforce.com). In its own data centers, Google assumes things will fail. They buy commodity hardware and hold the drives in with velcro. Every minute, 13 hrs of video are uploaded to YouTube. The search engine gets a billion queries a day. Google has had to build a huge infrastructure, which they now make available to the public for free.

Q: How do we reconcile the rapidity of innovation and the slowness of the gov’t acquisition process?
A: (david) It’s changing. We’re becoming beter about using what’s on the Web. And we’re learning to move incrementally rather than building the big honking system.

Q: What kind of test did Cisco do to weed about the execs who are not ready to move from the command and control structure?
A: At Cisco, we measure everything. John Chambers put together boards and councils to run the company. The councils are cross-functional. You quickly see who collaborates and who doesn’t. Cisco changed the compensation so that for some, 70% of their compensation comes from how the company overall does.

Q: The DoD blocks many social networking sites. The younger employees want to collaborate all the time. How do we bring them in, let them live in their culture, and modify the environment to meet their needs?
A: (david) Blocking access is a non-sustainable policy. These government institutions do change when leaders stand up.
A: (anthony) We interviewed 10,000 youths globally. The public sector is the least desirable place to work in the US, UK and Canada. I agree with Dave on the blocking of sites. Canada banned Facebook for gov’t empoloyees, so everyone moved to MySpace. Canada is now looking at rolling out a Facebook-like product for the entire government.
A: (mike) Google has “20% time”: Spend 20% of your week doing something of great interest to you. That’s how Gmail was created. It includes community service, solar energy, etc. That helps retention. The federal gov’t attracts very smart people, but they get frustrated when tools they’re using — Facebook, for example — gets shut down. The first thing that has to be addressed are the security issues. We open our data centers to let federal folks see how secure we are. The old certification process takes too long.

Q: In the new model of gov’t how do you make sure the voice of all the people, even those without cmputers, is heard?
A: Yes, we don’t want simply to amplify the traditional values. But we hope some of the gaps will close. This needs political attention.

Q: The Toffflers [who are in the audience] point to the variance of rates of change. What’s Google doing to help accelerate change in education and law, to keep it up with the speed at which business changes?
A: (mike) We do try to influence policy. And we try to get info out to the gov’t. My 20% time is spent in bringing tech to charitable orgs.
A: (bruce) Cisco thinks there has to be a major transformation in education: Change in curriculum, in how teachers teach, how students can use tech to learn. We have bunches of pilots in place.

Q: We don’t have standards. Should there be government regulation of the Net to produce standards? And how would this work internationally?
A: (anthony) Regulating the Internet is not so good. But having the government using open standards is important.
A: (bruce) You stifle innovation if you over regulate.
A: (mike) Disruptive tech disrupts cost structures as well. We like open source and open standards because if you use our stuff, you’ll also be using other stuff as well.

Last thoughts? What do you see coming down the road?
A: (mike) Watch for Android. Open source.
A: (bruce) Work on culture to take advantage of what’s out there.
A: (anthony) How does the gov’t source expertise? How does it tap into the collaborative intelligence?
A: (david) We have to work on trust. It’s the single biggest inhibitor to making this shift. [Tags: ]

11 Comments »

September 8, 2008

Canadian election gets down and redolent of loam

The tag line at the Canadian Conservative Party’s Web site, attacking the liberal candidate Stéphane Dion — as you know, the PM just called for an election — seems oddly 19th century:

“Canada cannot afford risky experiments at a time of uncertainty”

It’s as if Obama were to say, “My opponent’s steadiness of purpose is challenged by recent announcements seemingly at odds with this character,” or if McCain were to say, “To what end shall our nation proceed if driven by hands untested by trial?”

The Conservative site does feature “MyCampaign,” a “virtual campaign office,” that lets you write letters to editors, recruit friends, call talk radio, and engage in other acts of personal broadcasting. As far as I can see, there’s no actual social networking available.


The Liberal party site does some Ajax-y launch-on-hover things, and has a prominent link to Facebook where Dion has 12,000 supporters. The page was updated on Dec. 14, June 19, and Aug. 19. The Liberal’s YouTube page leads with a video of a slow clap for nature, posted two months ago.

The NDP’s Facebook page has 13,000 supporters and a campaign video uploaded yesterday, although the updates have been about monthly. And the NDP has been twittering. Well, to be exact, they’ve tweeted three times, but once was six minutes ago. They have 169 followers, but are following 151, creating an amazing following-to-follower relationship that they can only hope will not be sustainable in the long run.

(And, yes, although I’m being snarky about the Canadian Web sites’ campaign rhetoric, I do prefer it to America’s.) [Tags: ]

7 Comments »

June 11, 2008

Simple sabotage

At the Enterprise 2.0 conference (which I didn’t attend), Don Burke and Sean Dennehey from the CIA gave a talk on Intellipedia, the CIA’s internal wikipedia. As part of their talk, they cited a manual, including, I’m told, this from page 28:

(1) Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
(2) Make “speeches.” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of per­sonal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate “patriotic” comments.
(3) When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and considera­tion.” Attempt to make the committees as large as possible — never less than five.
(4) Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
(5) Haggle over precise wordings of com­munications, minutes, resolutions.
(6) Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
(7) Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow-conferees to be “reason­able” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.
(8) Be worried about the propriety of any decision — raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the juris­ diction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.

Their point was that these instructions come from a 1944 manual on how to sabotage a business.

The session’s Web page points to the entire, amazing, declassified manual of simple sabotage. [Tags: ]

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