October 2005

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Day of dead south street

Originally uploaded by inkblurt.

South Street in Philly had a day of the dead parade on Sunday. It was small but charming. This picture was actually in a shop window, but there are a couple of shots of the skeleton puppets in the parade on my flickr stream.
Unfortunately my real camera broke, so all I could get were these fuzzy phone-cam shots.

This is just grand: The Haunted Mansion – Secrets

An in-depth history and explanation of the Disney Haunted Mansion.

As a kid, I used to have some of the most delightful nightmares about this attraction. And in my child dreamscape I’d sometimes just have happy dreams of Disney in general, the Haunted Mansion was second only to the (in my dreams, hyperbolically fantastic) Magic Shop for causing fireworks in my brains.

Happy Halloween!!!

I’m late in acknowledging this, but October is “Lupus Awareness Month.”

People I care very much about struggle with this disease, an auto-immune disorder that is very complex and often debilitating.

There are so many causes out there, and so many needs. But chances are, someone you know is challenged with this disease. I encourage you to click on the link and read about it. The more people are aware, the better.

One problem with the participation model is that so much of it is fueled by idealists. Well, it’s not totally a problem, because we need idealists. But it makes the “movement” behind the model seem naive to the more realistic and/or cynical.

I like to think I’m more cynical than not, though I often surprise myself with an occasional rash of gullibility. (I’ve posted stuff here that, looking back, I have to roll my eyes at.)

Wikis (just google it if you need context) have their orthodox fanatics, for sure. There are tons of people who are appalled that anyone would sully a simple, elegant wiki with login authorization or levels of access, for example. It’s not “the Wiki Way!”

But that’s like the first person to invent the wheel being angry when someone adds an axle.

Reflecting its somewhat idealistic origins, the wiki concept started with complete openness, and is now having to mature into other less specialized uses with more general audiences (or, for that matter, more specialized audiences), and it’s having to adapt some more “closed” genetic code for those environments. (Kind of like wheels eventually need tires, brakes and differentials….)

Over at The Register, Andrew Orlowski sneeringly opines about Wikipedia, that the “inner sanctum” is finally admitting the system isn’t flawless and all things Wiki aren’t necessarily holy and beyond criticism. Well, yeah, if that’s true, that’s a good thing. He also points out that Wikipedia is now getting replicated all over the web in spots like Answers.com. I would agree that this is probably not a good idea — taking the wiki articles out of the context of Wikipedia leads people at other sites to think that this is “published” official information, when if they were on Wikipedia they at least understand that it’s editable by anybody, and therefore somewhat less official.

What I don’t especially appreciate about the article is the patronizing stance. It’s dismissive of the participation model, treating it as so much pot-induced hippie talk. When the fact is, many more knowledgeable and experienced people have endorsed this concept and used it in the real world. (Two examples: John Seely Brown’s “Eureka” knowledge network at Xerox; and CAVNET at the US Military.) Are these the idealistic Wiki concept, with no vetting or hierarchy? No. But the “ideal” wiki in any serious real-world endeavor is a straw-man example. Peter Morville recently wrote a more reasoned and informed take on Wikipedia in his column on Authority. See? There are mature perspectives on the usefulness of the model that don’t buy into the hype.

Nick Carr (whose blog I’d not even seen until yesterday, but which is suddenly gotten me sucked into its comments here and there) had this to say in
The law of the wiki

It reveals that collectivism and intelligence are actually inversely correlated. Here, then, is what I’ll propose as the Law of the Wiki: Output quality declines as the number of contributors increases. Making matters worse, the best contributors will tend to become more and more alienated as they watch their work get mucked up by the knuckleheads, and they’ll eventually stop contributing altogether…

I commented the following: I don’t think it’s necessarily true that the number of participants decreases the quality of the output. It depends on the subject and the people involved. Two physicists can write an entry on Quantum Mechanics, but twenty of them can fill it out will all kinds of specialized information that only two wouldn’t have to offer. But that’s because it’s a circumscribed topic relevant to a somewhat narrow community of practice (which is actually what wiki’s were sort of created to support to begin with).
Once you start opening things up to *anybody* about *anything* — i.e. “vulgar” interests — you will end up with mediocre writing and information about topics that appeal to the lowest common denominator. That’s just how human systems structure themselves.
So yes, once you take the “pure wiki” out of the rarified environment of specialists or small groups, you definitely have to impose some top-down structure and peer review. I don’t think anyone but the most absurdly wide-eyed idealists would say differently.

He answers that he was indeed talking about the purely democratic wiki, and also asks if even in the specialized info areas, there could be such a thing as “too many” involved, that would erode quality.

I think that’s entirely possible, sure. But to some degree I wonder if it misses the point.

In fact, calling Wikipedia after an encyclopedia kind of misses the point too. I think it’s part of what’s throwing so many people off. But I’m not sure what else to call it, really. Other than “The Big General Knowledge Wiki.”

To my knowledge, even the first simple “idealistic” wikis were never meant as “authoritative” sources of knowledge (and by authority here, I mean the conventionally agreed upon and empirically verified facts on a topic). It was a place for quick gatherings over certain topics, simple entry and editing, for groups of people who wanted a place where all their thoughts could stick for later viewing and shaping. That’s great … and that’s what Wikipedia really is, just very very large. It does its job very well: it acts as a quick, simple repository of what people are thinking or communicating about particular topics. It’s not made for eloquence or even necessarily permanence.

Wikipedia is an experiment in taking that totally open environment (the wiki) and seeing what happens if we layer into it elements of traditional knowledge-authority-making. And (I think wisely) the organizers started with as little structure as possible rather than assuming it needed too much. Because it’s a living, breathing entity that can change over time through the actions of its community, it didn’t have to be a Parthenon. It just had to be a decent Quonset Hut. The other feature can be added and tweaked as needed.

As for the messiness and unevenness, I think people need to get over it. If you prefer your information pre-packaged and pre-authorized, go to the traditonal sources (not that they’ll all be correct, but at least you won’t get in *trouble* for it, probably — you can always say “I checked in a real book!” Kind of like all those companies using Linux even though they bought it from IBM — because it’s more official and feels less risky and messy.)

All Wikipedia does is take the relatively invisible market of ideas, the activity of the knowledge hive, and make it visible, in all its messy glory. “Official” knowledge came from the same hive — but the activity wasn’t out there for everyone to watch. It was in academic conferences or the editorial meetings at People magazine.

But we still need “peer reviewed” authoritative decisionmaking around what information should be referred to when somebody wants “the right answer.”

So, Wikipedia, I think, ought to explain this somehow to its users. Now that the community using it has gone way beyond the early adopter crowd, and hits on all kinds of things on Google are pointing to Wikipedia in the first 10 lines, they probably should let people know: what you read here was put here mostly by people like you. Always check primary sources, etc etc etc .

At some point, Wikipedia needs to have ways of denoting how ‘official’ something is — maybe a coding system, where the Quantum Physics page has several physicists looking after it, but the J-Lo page is basically a free for all?

I believe in the Wiki Way. I do. I just think it’s only one virtue among many, and that it has to be shaped to meet the demands of different contexts.

What Web 2.0 Means

I’m not much of a joiner. I’m not saying I’m too good for it. I just don’t take to it naturally.

So I tend to be a little Johnny-come-lately to the fresh stuff the cool kids are doing.

For example, when I kept seeing “Web 2.0” mentioned a while back, I didn’t really think about it much, I thought maybe I’d misunderstood … since Verizon was telling me my phone could now do Wap 2.0, I wondered if it had something to do with that?

See? I’m the guy at the party who was lost in thought (wondering why the ficus in the corner looks like Karl Marx if you squint just right) and looks up after everybody’s finished laughing at something and saying, “what was that again?”

So, when I finally realize what the hype is, I tend to already be a little contrary, if only to rescue my pride. (Oh, well, that wasn’t such a funny joke anyway, I’ll go back to squinting at the ficus, thank you.)

After a while, though, I started realizing that Web 2.0 is a lot like the Mirror of Erised in the first Harry Potter novel. People look into it and see what they want to see, but it’s really just a reflection of their own desires. They look around at others and assume they all see the same thing. (This is just the first example I could think of for this trope: a common one in literature and especially in science fiction.)

People can go on for quite a while assuming they’re seeing the same thing, before realizing that there’s a divergence.

I’ve seen this happen in projects at work many times, in fact. A project charter comes out, and several stakeholders have their own ideas in their heads about what it “means” — sometimes it takes getting halfway through the project before it dawns on some of them that there are differences of opinion. On occasion they’ll assume the others have gone off the mark, rather than realizing that nobody was on the same mark to begin with.

I’m not wanting to completely disparage the Web 2.0 meme, only to be realistic about it. Unlike the Mirror of Erised (“desire” backwards) Web 2.0 is just a term, not even an object. So it lends itself especially well to multiple interpretations.

A couple of weeks ago, this post by Nicholas Carr went up: The amorality of Web 2.0. It’s generated a lot of discussion. Carr basically tries to put a pin in the inflated bubble of exuberance around the dream of the participation model. He shows how Wikipedia isn’t actually all that well written or accurate, for example. He takes to task Kevin Kelly’s Wired article (referenced in my blog a few days ago) about the new dawning age of the collectively wired consciousness.

I think it’s important to be a devil’s advocate about this stuff when so many people are waxing religiously poetic (myself included at times). I wondered if Carr really understood what he was talking about at certain points — for example, doing a core sample of Wikipedia and judging the quality of the whole based on entries about Bill Gates and Jane Fonda sort of misses the point of what Wikipedia does in toto. (But in the comments to his post, I see he recognizes a difference between value and quality, and that he understands the problems around “authority” of texts.) Still, it’s a useful bit of polemic. One thing it helps us do is remember that the ‘net is only what we make it, and that sitting back and believing the collective conscious is going to head into nirvana without any setbacks or commercial influence is dangerously naive.

At any rate, all we’re doing with all this “Web 2.0” talk is coming to the realization that 1) the Web isn’t about a specific technology or model of browsing, but that all these methods and technologies will be temporary or evolved very quickly, and that 2) it’s not, at its core, really about buying crap and looking things up — it’s about connecting people with other people.

So I guess my problem with the term “Web 2.0” is that it’s actually about more than the Web. It’s about internetworking that reduces the inertia of time and space and creates new modes of civilization. Not utopian modes — just new ones. (And not even, really, that completely new — just newly global, massive and immediate for human beings.) And it’s not about “2.0” but about “n” where “n” is any number up to infinity.

But then again, I’m wrong. I can’t tell people what “Web 2.0” means because what it means is up to the person thinking about it. Because Web 2.0 is, after all, a sign or cypher, an avatar, for whatever hopes and dreams people have for infospace. On an individual level, it represents what each person’s own idiosyncratic obsessions might be (AJAX for one person, Wiki-hivemind for the next). And on a larger scale, for the community at large, it’s a shorthand way of saying “we’re done with the old model, we’re ready for a new one.” It’s a realization that, hey, it’s bigger and stranger than we realized. It’s also messy, and a real mix of mediocrity and brilliance. Just like we are.

Oldest .com’s

Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing shares a link to the 100 oldest .COM names in the registry, and wonders about the “visionaries” who might’ve realized they needed a “.com” domain in 1985.

But many of those companies likely weren’t thinking about commercial Internet possibilities. They just happened to be involved in the academic, scientific and defense contracting fields, either directly or tangentially, and according to the rules in the registry, they had to be “.com” to show they were commercial enterprises, unlike the majority of the Internet nodes at the time, which were .edu or .gov (and a few .orgs I guess, might’ve been the minority? Hm. )

Anyway, I mention this not just to be persnickety, but because I think it’s interesting how easy it is to forget what the context was 20 or hell even 12 years ago. I’m fascinated at how quickly the ‘net became a “land of opportunity” as opposed to an under-the-radar propeller-head network, and how to some degree we’re all coming back to the ‘net’s DNA of community (which has always been prevalant, it’s just not gotten the press because the ‘real’ community happening online isn’t necessarily connected to any IPO’s).

The market isn’t using the net for its own ends. People are using the market to utilize the net for their own ends… and as always, people are mainly interested in connecting with, sharing with, creating with other people.

Churches of Bones

Nearing Halloween, you really don’t get any more Halloweeny than this.

Kostnice Ossuary, Kutna Hora, Sedlec, Church of Bones

Having gazed in wonderment down into the ‘bells’ where countless bones were stacked one upon the other, I began to appreciate that every skull represented a person; a life so different from my own, yet connected in many other respects not least because I too would one day be reduced to these ghostly remains, a forgotten memory from future’s history. Often plagued by existentialist thoughts, I think such a visit did more good than harm.

Victor blogs about a book he’s reading, (Don’t Think of an Elephant — which is about how progressives can re-frame political discourse), and he’s channeling some notes into his post.

Always start with values, values everyone shares.
Use rhetorical questions: “Wouldn’t it be better if…”
Show moral outrage with controlled passion.
Always be on the offense. Don’t negate the other person’s claims; reframe. Never answer a question framed from your opponents point of view.
Tell a story where your frame is built into the story.

It occurs to me this sort of thing isn’t bad advice for *any* situation where you’re trying to effect change. For example, if you’re trying to get your company to think differently about how it develops software, and how its current practices are antithetical to its purported values … not that I know of any companies that would do such a thing.

The folks at the IA Retreat got jiggy with ubiquitous technology. Here’s a record on their Wiki (Adam Greenfield as channelled by Chiara Fox): Everyware – iaretreat05 – JotSpot

It’s an idea that may have seemed a little weird back in 1999 when John Seely Brown and Mark Weiser were writing about it: The Coming Age of Calm Technology.

But when I notice how a coworker gets into his Prius, and the car just knows it’s him because of the fob hanging from his keyring, I realize this age is running toward us pretty dang fast. What’s to stop the car from also knowing to have his schedule and contacts ready in its console, his favorite iTunes playlists cued up, not to mention traffic information for his commute?

Why shouldn’t our information follow us around? Since everything’s going to be on one big network anyway? Hey man, it’s all about ustiquity!

(*Kicks self for not making it to the retreat…*)

via Victor Lombardi

Update: As Peter Boersma reminds me in a comment, Tom Vanderwal has been working with the “personal infocloud” idea for quite some time.


Jess McMullin’s blog, about which I just found out, has some great stuff already. I particularly dug this quote:


Design thinking emerges from design methods and process. But people can get to approaches that correspond to design thinking, without designers or design methods. The principles of iteration, of prototyping, of observation , systems approaches, and play are powerful ingredients in business success. Those principles are discovered by more than just design thinkers, and it’s arrogantly risky to assume we have a monopoly.

You tell ’em, Jess.

This is a terrific article: The Believer – Interview with Jonathan Haidt

Haidt makes some thought-provoking points: the evolutionary origins of morality; why some people find some things repugnant and others not; the difference between moral pluralism and moral relativism; and other great stuff.

He also reminds us not to objectify people with whom we may not agree, and not to make too many assumptions (usually to our own detriment):

First, it would help if liberals understood conservatives better. If I have a mission in life, it is to convince people that everyone is morally motivated—everyone except for psychopaths. Everyone else is morally motivated. Liberals need to understand that conservatives are motivated by more than greed and hatred. And Americans and George Bush in particular need to understand that even terrorists are pursuing moral goods. One of the most psychologically stupid things anyone ever said is that the 9/11 terrorists did this because they hate our freedom. That’s just idiotic. Nobody says: “They’re free over there. I hate that. I want to kill them.” They did this because they hate us, they’re angry at us for many reasons, and terrorism and violence are “moral” actions, by which I don’t mean morally right, I mean morally motivated.

Some people will read Haidt and immediately dismiss him because they reject a scientific (i.e. evolutionarily based) point of view on matters of human morality and ethics. But whatever. That’d be too bad, because it actually gives some solid, rational reasons for the “left” to be a lot more tolerant and understanding of the “right.” (Even if they don’t agree.)

Irving Wladawsky-Berger

I just thought this was a fascinating post. Here’s a chunk:

Coase also pointed out that, for a variety of reasons, there is a natural limit to what can be produced efficiently within the firm, which is why all businesses also have a more or less extensive supply chain, and strive for an optimal balance between what work gets done inside and outside the firm.
This balance is now in flux. Since we can now use technology, the Internet and open standards to begin to automate, standardize and integrate business processes, those transaction costs described by Roland Coase are dropping precipitously. Consequently, the whole nature of the firm, and what it means to run an efficient business, is going through very extensive changes. These are not easy changes. Not only is there a great deal of innovation required to automate and integrate business processes, but perhaps more important, there are even greater changes in culture required to transform Industrial Age business models to something more appropriate to our Internet era.

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