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June 25, 2016

TED, scraped

TED used to have an open API. TED no longer supports its open API. I want to do a little exploring of what the world looks like to TED, so I scraped the data from 2,228 TED Talk pages. This includes the title, author, tags, description, link to the transcript, number of times shared, and year. You can get it from here. (I named it tedTalksMetadata.txt, but it’s really a JSON file.)

“Scraping” means having a computer program look at the HTML underneath a Web page and try to figure out which elements refer to what. Scraping is always a chancy enterprise because the cues indicating which text is,say, the date and which is the title may be inconsistent across pages, and may be changed by the owners at any time. So I did the best I could, which is not very good. (Sometimes page owners aren’t happy about being scraped, but in this case it only meant one visit for each page, which is not a lot of burden for a site that has pages that get hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of visits. If they really don’t want to be scraped, they could re-open their API, which provides far more reliable info far more efficiently.)

I’ve also posted at GitHub the php scripts I wrote to do the scraping. Please don’t laugh.

If you use the JSON to explore TED metadata, please let me know if you come up with anything interesting that you’re willing to share. Thanks!

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June 23, 2016

No more rockstars

Leigh Honeywell [twitter: @hypatiadotca] has posted an important essay — No More Rockstars — written by her, Valerie Aurora (@vaurorapub), and Mary Gardiner (@me_gardiner). There’s a lot in it, and it’s clear and well-written, so it does not need summarizing by me, except to let you know why I think you should read it: It addresses the power imbalance implicit in a conceptual framework that thinks some industry leaders are special and therefore not subject to the same rules as the rest of us. The post analytically describes the phenomenon and suggests ways to avoid the dangers.

Lexi Gill writes a follow-on piece about one particular way that the rockstar culture leads to inequities:

… rock stars are often unofficial gatekeepers to an entire community or industry. They not only get to decide who’s “in” and who’s “out,” but have privileged access to an endless stream of new victims to choose from. Once “in,” the rock star also has special power to manipulate a newcomer’s experience, role and relationships within the community.

Having worked for many people and having observed many more, I can say that for me the best leaders are people whose joy comes from helping people flourish, that is, to discover and become who they are, even if that means developing away from the organization. Those are the women and men who have made the biggest difference in my professional life. I thank them for it.

…All part of the privilege of being a man.

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June 12, 2016

Beyond bricolage

In 1962, Claude Levi-Strauss brought the concept of bricolage into the anthropological and philosophical lexicons. It has to do with thinking with one’s hands, putting together new things by repurposing old things. It has since been applied to the Internet (including, apparently, by me, thanks to a tip from Rageboy). The term “bricolage” uncovers something important about the Net, but it also covers up something fundamental about the Net that has been growing even more important.

In The Savage Mind (relevant excerpt), CLS argued against the prevailing view that “primitive” peoples were unable to form abstract concepts. After showing that they often in have extensive sets of concepts for flora and fauna, he maintains that these concepts go beyond what they pragmatically need to know:

…animals and plants are not known as a result of their usefulness; they are deemed to be useful or interesting because they are first of all known.

It may be objected that science of this kind can scarcely be of much practical effect. The answer to this is that its main purpose is not a practical one. It meets intellectual requirements rather than or instead of satisfying needs.

It meets, in short, a “demand for order.”

CLS wants us to see the mythopoeic world as being as rich, complex, and detailed as the modern scientific world, while still drawing the relevant distinctions. He uses bricolage as a bridge for our understanding. A bricoleur scavenges the environment for items that can be reused, getting their heft, trying them out, fitting them together and then giving them a twist. The mythopoeic mind engages in this bricolage rather than in the scientific or engineering enterprise of letting a desired project assemble the “raw materials.” A bricoleur has what s/he has and shapes projects around that. And what the bricoleur has generally has been fashioned for some other purpose.

Bricolage is a very useful concept for understanding the Internet’s mashup culture, its culture of re-use. It expresses the way in which one thing inspires another, and the power of re-contextualization. It evokes the sense of invention and play that is dominant on so much of the Net. While the Engineer is King (and, all too rarely, Queen) of this age, the bricoleurs have kept the Net weird, and bless them for it.

But there are at least two ways in which this metaphor is inapt.

First, traditional bricoleurs don’t have search engines that let them in a single glance look across the universe for what they need. Search engines let materials assemble around projects, rather than projects be shaped by the available materials. (Yes, this distinction is too strong. Yes, it’s more complicated than that. Still, there’s some truth to it.)

Second, we have been moving with some consistency toward a Net that at its topmost layers replicates the interoperability of its lower layers. Those low levels specify the rules — protocols — by which networks can join together to move data packets to their destinations. Those packets are designed so they can be correctly interpreted as data by any recipient applications. As you move up the stack, you start to lose this interoperability: Microsoft Word can’t make sense of the data output by Pages, and a graphics program may not be able to make sense of the layer information output by Photoshop.

But, over time, we’re getting better at this:

Applications add import and export services as the market requires. More consequentially, more and richer standards for interoperability continue to emerge, as they have from the very beginning: FTP, HTML, XML, Dublin Core, Schema.org, the many Semantic Web vocabularies, ontologies, and schema, etc.

More important, we are now taking steps to make sure that what we create is available for re-use in ways we have not imagined. We do this by working within standards and protocols. We do it by putting our work into the sphere of reusable items, whether that’s by applying the Creative Commons license, putting our work into a public archive, , or even just paying attention to what will make our work more findable.

This is very different from the bricoleur’s world in which objects are designed for one use, and it takes the ingenuity of the bricoleur to find a new use for it.

This movement continues the initial work of the Internet. From the beginning the Net has been predicated on providing an environment with the fewest possible assumptions about how it will be used. The Net was designed to move anyone’s information no matter what it’s about, what it’s for, where it’s going, or who owns it. The higher levels of the stack are increasingly realizing that vision. The Net is thus more than ever becoming a universe of objects explicitly designed for reuse in unexpected ways. (An important corrective to this sunny point of view: Christian Sandvig’s brilliant description of how the Net has incrementally become designed for delivering video above all else.)

Insofar as we are explicitly creating works designed for unexpected reuse, the bricolage metaphor is flawed, as all metaphors are. It usefully highlights the “found” nature of so much of Internet culture. It puts into the shadows, however, the truly transformative movement we are now living through in which we are explicitly designing objects for uses that we cannot anticipate.

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June 11, 2016

Keeping MOOCs open—platforms vs. protocols

Tarun Vagani reports that Coursera has served notice that it is closing its archive of prior MOOCs (massive open online courses). As Coursera put it in an email:

Effective June 30, 2016, courses on the old platform will no longer be available.

Also, Coursera is phasing out its free certificates to those who successfully complete a course, according to CourseraJunkie.

There’s nothing wrong with a MOOC platform charging for whatever they want to charge for. There is something terribly wrong with the educational system handing power over MOOCs to a commercial entity.

MOOCs are here to stay. But we once again need to learn the danger of centralized platforms. Protocols are safer — more generative, more resistant to capture — than platforms. Distributed archives are safer than centralized archives.

Thank goodness the idea of the Decentalized Web (or, as I prefer to think of it, the Decent Web) is gaining momentum. Not a moment too soon.

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June 10, 2016

Building the Open Archive

If you’d like to upload open licensed content to the Internet Archive using your Android phone, install the OpenArchive app. You can do this using the Google Play Store

Jason Griffey and Dan Gillmor have posted about it from the Decentralized Web Summit that I am so sorry I had to miss.

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June 5, 2016

Muhammed Ali

I was a fourteen year old, suburban white boy with zero interest in sports or boxing when Muhammed Ali beat Sonny Liston. But, Cassius Clay, as he was named then, knowingly defied every stereotype his culture tried to confine him to, suffered for his insistence on being more than his culture would tolerate, and thereby gave us a model of bravery that we have yet to live up to.

It began with his transcendence as an athlete. Here he is at 35 in an exhibition match against Michael Dokes, with his beautiful face — as he’d be the first to acknowledge — still unmarred by punches.

Muhammed Ali ‘s story will be told for generations. The generations will be better for it.

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May 30, 2016

Some iconic dream imagery

I know I am 27 million views late to the party, but this Coldplay video has imagery that reminds me of dreams that I have had since childhood.

In my dream, the sky is a reflection of the Earth. You look up and see the Earth as seen from space. I can neither explain its meaning nor convey the awe it engenders in me. For what it’s worth, the dream feels Jungian to me, not symbolic.

In any case, this music video is pretty great.

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May 29, 2016

Hillary: Getting sh*t done

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May 26, 2016

Happy Birthday, DailyKos

DailyKos is fourteen years old today. In honor of this, they’re pointing at their birth photo.

It’s changed a lot in 14 years, but hasn’t swerved from its core principles: News and ideas for Democrats, in an open, conversational forum, with a strong commitment to building a community and getting shit done.

DailyKos is absolutely one of my go-to sites. Here’s some of what I like about it:

It is open about its commitment to Democratic values, but it is also fact based. For example, if an economic report isn’t where we’d like, DailyKos doesn’t try to put a happy face on it. It instead tries to figure out what’s going wrong and how it can be addressed. If this means criticizing Democrats all the way up to President Obama, they do it.

DailyKos has remained true to the vision of blogging as a way of democratizing voice. While the site has an excellent staff of paid writers — each of whom has her or his own voice — there are also thousands of bloggers at the site. The site has community-based ways of featuring them on the front page. This gives a real sense that site is ours.

Humor is part of the daily life of DailyKos.

Markos keeps his eye on the ball. The site is about helping Democrats win in order to advance progressive values. In March Markos decided that it’s time for the site to turn away from Bernie supporters doing the Republicans’ job for them by attacking Hillary in nasty, irrational ways. Supporting Bernie is fine. Open criticism of Hillary is fine. More than fine. We need to be alert to her limitations as well as to the ways in which Trump will attack her. But name-calling, personal attacks, or conspiracy theories about Vince Foster at this point will not help the progressive cause. As Markos says, there are plenty of other places on the Web for that sort of thing. So, you’ll still find people at the site fervently backing Bernie, and plenty of criticism and concern about Hillary. But not the sort of angry jeremiad that tears us apart.

The site does not get lost in the presidential horse race. It focuses also on state and local elections.

DailyKos is a fascinating hybrid of commitment and evidence-based dialogue. Here’s looking to many more years of it.

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May 19, 2016

Working in a co-working space

I’m in Talent Garden‘s largest branch, which is also its headquarters, in Milan. It’s a ridiculously large co-working space for startups, with an emphasis on openness. I’m enjoying sitting at a table with a few other people, none of whom I know and all of whom are speaking Italian.

I like co-working spaces enough that if I were looking for a place to work outside of my house, I’d consider joining one. It’s that or the local library. It depends on whether you find being around the young and the digital to be distracting, energizing, or both.

I find it energizing. Nevertheless, the segregation of the young from the old is a cultural and business loss.

talent garden open work space

Talent Garden ameliorates this by renting space to a handful of established companies (IBM, Cisco, and a bank, here in Milan) to provide mentoring, and so the old companies can get behind startups they find interesting. It’s a good model, although since I’m just here for the afternoon, I don’t know how much actual mingling occurs. Still, it’s a good idea.

I also like that Talent Garden explicitly tries to build community among its users. Not waving-in-the-hall community, but a community of shared space, shared events, and shared ideas. The American co-working space I’m most familiar with has public areas but assumes startups want to work in rooms with closed, solid doors. An open floor plan helps a startup culture to grow, which is perhaps more needed in Italy than in the US. Nevertheless, you can’t have too much community. Well, you can, but that’s easier to remediate than its opposite. (For a US shared space dedicated to building community, check out the treasured Civic Hall in NYC.)

(Note: Unlike the co-working space I’m most familiar with, TG does not provide a free, well-stocked kitchen. Just as well. Free kitchens cause my metabolism to think its faster than it is.)

 


 

I’m in Italy to participate in an Aspen Institute event in Venice over the weekend (poor poor me). I stopped in Milan to give a talk, which I internally have titled “Is the Internet Disappointed in Us?” It’s actually a monolog — no slides, no notes — about why my cohort thought the success of the Internet was inevitable, and why I am still optimistic about the Net. If you’re interested in having me in to speak with your group, let me know. Yeah, a plug.

And while I’m plugging, here’s some disclosure: Talent Garden is the venue for this talk, but no one is paying me for it.

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