the margin

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Archive for the ‘margin’ Category

a change is as good as a rest

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If we accept the general idea that people need a break from constant work, “a change is as good as a rest” is an old saying that might not seem applicable in a business environment. If you’re paying someone to do a job, where’s the advantage in letting someone do something they’re not being paid for?

This is where the idea of a flexible company comes in to play. Is it possible for a company’s business to be flexible? For at least part of the agenda to be set by the people working there?

Google, the Internet company founded on internet search, is the best-known example of such a company today. Whole books have been written on Google, so I don’t need to tell you much more about them, but I would like to say a bit about a particular perk of working there: 20 percent time.

Google employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their time, or one day a week, working on ideas not directly related to their main work project. Some of Google’s more interesting products have come directly from this process, including Orkut, their “social networking” system.

For a quick example of how this works, here’s a blog entry from a Google employee, describing how he was able to add a simple feature to Google Reader: 20 percent time in action. The feature in question is hardly ground-breaking – a new keyboard shortcut – but this same process has led to the real products described, and will lead to more.

The key point to be read from this is that the interests pursued by Google employees, in their 20 percent time, can be related to their personal interests. Getting paid for pursuing your personal interests might be interpreted by some companies, especially smaller ones, as “goofing off”, but… so what? Google’s financial success means that they can employ more people than they need to, and offer this 20 percent time perk in the hope that it leads to products with a stronger connection with what users actually want.

That’s enough for the moment – but you can bet I’ll be coming back to this topic as more information comes in. It will be interesting to compare and contrast how different companies approach the need to keep their employees motivated and creative. Plus, how they deal with forced breaks due to parenthood, illness, or family obligations, without estranging the people involved.


Written by brian t

May 20, 2006 at 12:24 pm

Posted in business, margin

the space opera

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How important is Margin in culture? If the goal is to engage the interest and intellect of the audience, then I would call it absolutely essential. You need only have see films on a regular basis to recognise how, in a good film, much work goes in to what is not said, what is not shown on screen.

The film Scarface has an infamous scene early on involving a chainsaw that is interesting for its effective use its sound, and the director never needs to show its actual use on a person. A similar method was used for the film Jaws: for much of the film the shark is a phantom menace lurking beneath the waves.

Another "phantom menace" was invoked in the second generation of Star Wars films, starting with Episode I; behind the events and
direct attacks on planets and people, the larger concern was to find out what, if anything was behind the apparently random actions of apparently unaffiliated parties.

Much was left to the imaginations of the protagonists, and of film-goers, unless they had previously read books written on the topic. Just as important, however, was the void in the overall story arc left by the order in which the films were made: the original Star Wars films were renamed Episodes, IV, V and VI, then Episodes I and II were made, years later.

How much of this was deliberate is debatable, but it should be noted how much of a canny marketer George Lucas became. By leaving fans of the genre with a hole to fill for several years, he was able to engage the fans' imagination in filling it, until the eventual release of Episode III.

How would the characters develop, to change from who they were before, to who they became? One character, that of Anakin Skywalker, would undergo a complete physical and mental metamorphosis into Darth Vader: just how would that happen? Would it be deliberate, wilful, planned, or would he be a victim of circumstances?

These matters employed the minds of many people, within and without the film industry, and it was quite understandable that the final result would not satisfy all who had imagined it differently. Reality has enough difficulty competing with one reality, never mind thousands of imaginations.

We talk about clothes "leaving nothing to the imagination", with the implication that the wearer is less interesting as a consequence. By leaving questions unanswered, you invite people to answer them for you, and that leads to more questions, more interest, more involvement. If your writing doesn't dictate how a change happens, you invite the reader to fill in the margins with the products of his or her imagination. Where one imagination has its limits, a thousand imaginations, pulling in different directions and operating at different levels, can flesh out a simple idea into a complete world, universe, or culture.

Written by brian t

May 13, 2006 at 6:23 pm

Posted in culture, margin

What is Margin?

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On a piece of paper, the margin is the space between the writing on the sheet and the edge. It is there to allow for extra notes and details to be added, but that is not its only purpose. It's also a space for doodles and idle speculation. It gives the eyes a context within which to work, a break between lines. It is a space that marks and imposes a boundary between work and play, between noise and silence, between something and nothing.

Here, "margin" is my formal way of saying that people are not perfect and can not operate at maximum capacity at all times. Call it breathing space, headroom, margin of error, literary ambiguity, or just plain Slack: the idea can extend to all our works and activities, whether physical, emotional or intellectual, whether corporate, cultural, or personal. This is commonly forgotten in our 24/7, always-on, always-working world, with its drive for greater efficiency and maximized profits, at the expense of time to question just what we are doing, and why.

This blog is dedicated to exploring this concept as deeply as possible, with examples from fiction, ideology, and the real world.

Written by brian t

May 12, 2006 at 10:36 am

Posted in margin