Joho the Blog

January 27, 2015

Reality answers.

Tattered Question Reality sticker

imgur link

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January 25, 2015

[2b2k] Inside.com’s updates: A new rhetorical form for journalism?

Inside.com is working hard to take the Web down a notch — the notch where, say, an announcement by NASA that they’ve discovered a possibly habitable planet in another galaxy gets the headline “Scientists find another Earth…and you won’t believe what it’s going to do to the value of your home!”

Jason Calacanis, the founder of the site, and someone I hadn’t talked with since the glory days of blogging, emphasized the site’s commitment to the “atomic unit” of journalism, a particular type of summary that he calls an “update.” It’s not often you get a new rhetorical form, especially for something as important as journalism. But does it work? Does it serve a role we need or want?

It’s an interesting exercise: If you had the opportunity to design a new rhetorical form that will fit news onto a mobile device — that’s where people will read most of their news, Jason is convinced — and will do the best job possible of conveying information without sensationalizing it, what would you come up with? Something longer than a tweet, or a headline crawling under Wolf Blitzer? Full sentences? Definitely free of clickbait. But would you use bullet points?would the headline try to summarize or capture interest? Would you have a headline at all?

Inside.com has its answer to the question, and it follows the form quite rigorously. An “update” — a name I find misleading since there may not be an original story it’s updating — starts with a sentence of 12-15 words in boldface that express the basic news. That’s followed by another sentence or two telling you what you most need to know next. There’s a relevant graphic element, but no headline, so there’s no need to try to flag the reader’s interest in just a few screaming words.

 

Screencapture of an update

An update also contains a link to the original article — the actual source article, not one that another site has aggregated — the author’s name, and the name of the person who curated the article. And tags: embedded as links in the article, and one at the bottom if needed. This seems to me to be the Minimum Right Stuff to include.Updates are written by the fifty people around the world Inside.com has hired for $12/hour.

So, how does this human-crafted rhetorical form hold up against the snippets Google News algorithmically derives and features under its headlines?

Here’s Google’s report on what is the top story at Inside.com as I write this:

Yemen’s President, Cabinet resign
Yemen’s President resigned Thursday night shortly after his Prime Minister and the Cabinet stepped down — seismic changes in the country’s political scene that come just one day after the government and Houthi rebels struck a …

And Inside.com:

A report from close to Yemen’s prime minister says the government has offered its resignation. There is no word yet on whether the president will accept the resignation. Houthi rebels still hold the capital, and the president is still a virtual prisoner in his home.

Inside.com’s seems obviously preferable. Google (which is summarizing a post at CNN.com in this case) squanders most of its space simply telling us that it’s a big deal. Inside.com tells us four things, which is three more than Google’s summary.

Another example, this time for the second article at Inside.com (for which you have to do an explicit search at Google News). Google News:

Pentagon Scolds Air Force for Wasting Nearly $9 Billion on 
Drones are expensive. Aircraft like General Atomics’s MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper cost millions of dollars piece, while the cost of …

Inside.com:

A memo from the Pentagon says the U.S. Air Force’s investment in drones is extravagant. The memo suggests that the Air Force is wasting as much as $8.8 billion in maintaining 46 Reaper drones. The memo says the Air Force has not justified the expanding drone fleet.

Inside.com hands down. Plus, the Google News snippet comes from Gizmodo, which seems to have based its post heavily on an article in The Guardian. Inside.com links its update directly to The Guardian. There’s nothing wrong with what Gizmodo has done; it’s explicit about its use of info from The Guardian and adds its own commentary and links. But I’d rather have Google News snip directly from the source.

One more example, the third item at Inside.com. Google News:

AirAsia flight QZ8501: black box reveals final moments
The cockpit voice recorder from AirAsia flight QZ8501 has revealed that “screaming alarms” warned the pilots of immediate danger before the …

Inside.com:

Divers find six bodies from AirAsia flight QZ8501 but are unable to enter the fuselage. It is believed the majority of victims will be found there. Indonesia’s Rear Admiral Widodo says the wreckage will be lifted to the surface Friday. So far, 59 bodies have been found.

The score is 3:0 in favor of Inside.com as far as I’m concerned.

Now, that’s not to say that Inside.com is a superior news service. Google News covers many more items at this point, and refreshes more often. In fact, in the time it took me to copy and paste these examples, Google News had a posted a fresher story about the events in Yemen. Also, Google News lets you browse among many newspapers’ coverage of the same event. (Jason responds that Inside.com gets posts up in 2-7 mins after an event hits the Web, and it immediately posts submitted links even before a human has written an update for it.)

But when it comes to the actual content the two services provide, Inside.com’s human-crafted text does the job of educating us quickly far better. Google News doesn’t even try that hard; it aims at giving us enough that we can see if we’re interested enough to click on the link and read the whole story.

Then there is the broader difference in what we’d like such services to do. Google News is a form of headline news. If we only read the Google News page without clicking into any stories, we’ll have very thin knowledge of what’s going on. In fact, it couldn’t get any thinner. With Inside.com, if we just read the boldfaced first sentences, we’ll come out knowing more than if we read the Google News headlines. We do want to be sure that people understand that three sentences are never the whole story. Unless the first sentence contains the word “Kardashian,” of course.

I don’t know if Inside.com can scale the way it needs to in order to survive; Jason is very focused on that now. Also, I don’t have confidence yet that Inside.com is giving me a reliable overview of the moments’ news — and, no, I don’t know what a “reliable overview” means or how to recognize one. But I do like the update as a rhetorical form. And since Jason says that Inside.com will have an API, perhaps it can survive at least as a service feeding other news sites … maybe even Google News if Google could overcome its bias in favor of the algorithmic.

In any case, the update form Inside.com has created seems to me to be a worthwhile addition to the rhetoric of journalism.

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January 20, 2015

Fargo: an open outliner

Dave Winer loves outlines. I do, too, but Dave loves them More. We know this because Dave’s created the Fargo outliner, and, in the way of software that makes us freer, he’s made it available to us to use for free, without ads or spyware, and supporting the standards and protocols that make our ideas interoperable.

Fargo is simple and straightfoward. You enter text. You indent lines to create structure. You can reorganize and rearrange as you would like. Type CMD-? or CTL-? for help.

Fargo is a deep product. It is backed by a CMS so you can use it as your primary tool for composing and publishing blog posts. (Dave knows a bit about blogging, after all.) It has workgroup tools. You can execute JavaScript code from it. It understands Markdown. You can use it to do presentations. You can create and edit attributes. You can include other files, so your outlines scale. You can includes feeds, so your outlines remain fresh.

Fargo is generative. It supports open standards, and it’s designed to make it easy to let what you’ve written become part of the open Web. It’s written in HTML5 and runs in all modern browsers. Your outlines have URLs so other pages can link to them. Fargo files are saved in the OPML standard so other apps can open them. The files are stored in your Dropbox folder , which puts them in the Cloud but also on your personal device; look in Dropbox/Apps/smallpicture/. You can choose to encrypt your files to protect them from spies. The Concord engine that powers Fargo is Open Source.

Out of the box, Fargo is a heads-down outliner for people who think about what they write in terms of its structure. (I do.) It thus is light on the presentation side: You can’t easily muck about with the styles it uses to present various levels, and there isn’t an embedded way to display graphics, although you can include files that are displayed when the outline is rendered. But because it is a simple product with great depth, you can always go further with it.

And now matter how far you go, you’ll never be locked in.

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January 14, 2015

Install your own listicle

Dave Winer has made it easy to install your own “listicle”: a Web page that cycles through chunks of text one chunk at a time. For an example, see the listicle Dave created to display Doc and my New Clues clue by clue.

The text comes from a JSON file that you can of course alter. Take a look at the JSON file in a text editor and you’ll figure it out. A couple of things to know:

  • Be sure to end each quote with a comma, except the last one.

  • If your chunks contain any double quotes, put a backslash before them. Otherwise, the JSON will think it’s come to the end of a chunk and it will get confused.

  • Because JSON can be finnicky, check what you’ve done at a site like JSON Formatter. (I broke Dave’s New Clues listicle for a while because I neglected to check my file after I added a dropped clue…and forgot to put a comma at the end of the line.)

Dave has not only made it easier for people to use his work and to make it their own, it’s a good project to learn some coding with. And it’s a great example of the sort of software-that-makes-us-freer that Dave’s urging us to recognize, share, and appreciate.

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Software that makes us freer

Dave Winer has a couple of related posts up, one addressed to Doc Searls and me, and the other broadening the point: we need to be doing more to support software that makes us, and the Internet, freer.

Dave’s first post addressed Doc and me because Dave not only likes Doc Searls‘ and my New Clues (and the Gillmor Gang podcast we did on Friday), he wrote a cool app — a “listicle” version of the Clues — and before we posted gave us some crucial advice. Dave’s point is that there’s software that increases our freedom and there’s software that “siphons off and monetizes freedom.” People like Dave write software that increases our freedom. People like Doc and me and you ought to be informing one another and the entire ecosystem about the freedom-increasing software we use.

No argument there. I don’t blog a lot about specific pieces of software, except for the library software I’d been working with for the past five years — It’s free-making software — and to whine. I can do more, but, frankly, if you’re reading this blog, you’re in a very elite club (and by “elite” I mean “tiny”) so the practical effect will be negligible. Still, I’ll try.

I’m more distressed by how difficult it is to find freedom-making software. At the major download sites (note: do not use download.com until you read this) you can restrict your results to “free” but not in Dave’s sense…and even then many of the apps are only pretending to be monetarily free. It would help a lot if freedom-making software were a category you could search for. Or if there were download sites devoted to aggregating such software. (What am I forgetting or don’t know about? (Source code sites are too geeky for most people.))

It would be good to come up with a better name than “freedom-making” apps so that it is easier for people to talk about it and understand the concept.

Obviously we’d also want to have some criteria. As I understand it, this is software that doesn’t lock you in, doesn’t lock out other apps, and enables what you do with it to become part of the larger Web.

Heck, we might even want a badge. It works for non-GMO food and Fair Trade goods.

I agree with Dave that we all ought to be talking more audibly about the software we use that makes the Web a better place in the ways that matter: by making it richer with openly linkable and re-usable pieces. And I’ll try to do so, starting soon with a review of Dave’s Fargo outliner. It’d be even better to fill in the pieces missing from our infrastructure for supporting the makers who give us more liberty.

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January 12, 2015

Chief Philosophical Officer

It had to be back in 1993 that I had dual cards at Interleaf. But it was only a couple of days ago that I came across them.

Interleaf business cards

Yes, for a couple of years I was both VP of Strategic Marketing and Chief Philosophical Officer at Interleaf.

The duties of the former were more rigorously defined than those of the latter. It was mainly just a goofy card, but it did reflect a bit of my role there. I got to think about the nature of documents, knowledge, etc., and then write and speak about it.

Goofy for sure. But I think in some small ways it helped the company. Interleaf had amazingly innovative software, decades ahead of its time, in large part because the developers had stripped documents down to their elements, and were thinking in new ways about how they could go back together. Awesome engineers, awesome software.

And I got to try to explain why this was important even beyond what the software enabled you to do.

Should every company have a CPO? I remember writing about that at the end of my time there. If I find it, I’ll post it. But I won’t and so I won’t.

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January 8, 2015

New Clues

The project with Doc that I mentioned is a new set of clues, following on The Cluetrain Manifesto from 16 years ago.

The clues are designed as an open source publishing project: The text is in the public domain, and we’re making the clues available at Github in various computer-friendly formats, including JSON, OPML and XML.

We launched this morning and a happy hell has broken loose. So I’m just going to posts some links for now. In fact, I’m copying and pasting from an email by Doc:

Gotta run…

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January 7, 2015

Harvard Library adopts LibraryCloud

According to a post by the Harvard Library, LibraryCloud is now officially a part of the Library toolset. It doesn’t even have the word “pilot” next to it. I’m very happy and a little proud about this.

LibraryCloud is two things at once. Internal to Harvard Library, it’s a metadata hub that lets lots of different data inputs be normalized, enriched, and distributed. As those inputs change, you can change LibraryCloud’s workflow process once, and all the apps and services that depend upon those data can continue to work without making any changes. That’s because LibraryCloud makes the data that’s been input available through an API which provides a stable interface to that data. (I am overstating the smoothness here. But that’s the idea.)

To the Harvard community and beyond, LibraryCloud provides open APIs to access tons of metadata gathered by Harvard Library. LibraryCloud already has metadata about 18M items in the Harvard Library collection — one of the great collections — including virtually all the books and other items in the catalog (nearly 13M), a couple of million of images in the VIA collection, and archives at the folder level in Harvard OASIS. New data can be added relatively easily, and because LibraryCloud is workflow based, that data can be updated, normalized and enriched automatically. (Note that we’re talking about metadata here, not the content. That’s a different kettle of copyrighted fish.)

LibraryCloud began as an idea of mine (yes, this is me taking credit for the idea) about 4.5 years ago. With the help of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, which I co-directed until a few months ago, we invited in local libraries and had a great conversation about what could be done if there were an open API to metadata from multiple libraries. Over time, the Lab built an initial version of LibraryCloud primarily with Harvard data, but with scads of data from non-Harvard sources. (Paul Deschner, take many many bows. Matt Phillips, too.) This version of LibraryCloud — now called lilCloud — is still available and is still awesome.

With the help of the Library Lab, a Harvard internal grant-giving group, we began a new version based on a workflow engine and hosted in the Amazon cloud. (Jeffrey Licht, Michael Vandermillen, Randy Stern, Paul Deschner, Tracey Robinson, Robin Wendler, Scott Wicks, Jim Borron, Mary Lee Kennedy, and many more, take bows as well. And we couldn’t have done it without you, Arcardia Foundation!) (Note that I suffer from Never Gets a List Right Syndrome, so if I left you out, blame my brain and let me know. Don’t be shy. I’m ashamed already.)

The Harvard version of LibraryCloud is a one-library implementation, although that one library comprises 73 libraries. Thus the LibraryCloud Harvard has adopted is a good distance from the initial vision of a single API for accessing multiple libraries. But it’s a big first step. It’s open source code [documentation]. Who knows?

I think it’s impressive that Harvard Library has taken this step toward adopting a platform architecture, and it’s cool beyond cool that this architecture is further opening up Harvard Library’s metadata riches to any developer or site that wants to use it. (This also would not have happened without Harvard Library’s enlightened Open Metadata policy.)

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January 6, 2015

Been working on something (and it’s not this poemsicle).

I haven’t been blogging because I’ve been working many, many hours a day on a project that’s set to go live on Thursday at 10am EST, or so we hope.

Hopefully you’re going to love it or hate it.

In the meantime, here’s a tiny poem that is apropos of nothing. (Seriously. It’s not a clue to something – just something I woke up with.)

The hole in a teacup
is not for the tea
but for your finger.
Thus does a nothing
give intention a lift.

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December 27, 2014

Oculus Thrift

I just received Google’s Oculus Rift emulator. Given that it’s made of cardboard, it’s all kinds of awesome.

Google Cardboard is a poke in Facebook’s eyes. FB bought Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset, for $2B. Oculus hasn’t yet shipped a product, but its prototypes are mind-melting. My wife and I tried one last year at an Israeli educational tech lab, and we literally had to have people’s hands on our shoulders so we wouldn’t get so disoriented that we’d swoon. The Lab had us on a virtual roller coaster, with the ability to turn our heads to look around. It didn’t matter that it was an early, low-resolution prototype. Swoon.

Oculus is rumored to be priced at around $350 when it ships, and they will sell tons at that price. Basically, anyone who tries one will be a customer or will wish s/he had the money to be a customer. Will it be confined to game players? Not a chance on earth.

So, in the midst of all this justifiable hype about the Oculus Rift, Google announced Cardboard: detailed plans for how to cut out and assemble a holder for your mobile phone that positions it in front of your eyes. The Cardboard software divides the screen in two and creates a parallaxed view so you think you’re seeing in 3D. It uses your mobile phone’s kinetic senses to track the movement of your head as you purview your synthetic domain.

I took a look at the plans for building the holder and gave up. For $15 I instead ordered one from Unofficial Cardboard.

When it arrived this morning, I took it out of its shipping container (made out of cardboard, of course), slipped in my HTC mobile phone, clicked on the Google Cardboard software, chose a demo, and was literally — in the virtual sense — flying over the earth in any direction I looked, watching a cartoon set in a forest that I was in, or choosing YouTube music videos by turning to look at them on a circular wall.

Obviously I’m sold on the concept. But I’m also sold on the pure cheekiness of Google’s replicating the core functionality of the Oculus Rift by using existing technology, including one made of cardboard.

(And, yeah, I’m a little proud of the headline.)

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