Joho the Blog

April 20, 2014

Minor Beatles

This video was over at the NY Times Crossword blog (where I discovered that I’d missed the really clever part of the theme):

I know I’m old, children, but keep in mind that that’s a minor Beatles song. And yet there is so much right about it. More or less perfect. And not nearly the best of what they gave us.

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[2b2k] In defense of the library Long Tail

Two percent of Harvard’s library collection circulates every year. A high percentage of the works that are checked out are the same as the books that were checked out last year. This fact can cause reflexive tsk-tsking among librarians. But — with some heavy qualifications to come — this is at it should be. The existence of a Long Tail is not a sign of failure or waste. To see this, consider what it would be like if there were no Long Tail.

Harvard’s 73 libraries have 16 million items [source]. There are 21,000 students and 2,400 faculty [source]. If we guess that half of the library items are available for check-out, which seems conservative, that would mean that 160,000 different items are checked out every year. If there were no Long Tail, then no book would be checked out more than any other. In that case, it would take the Harvard community an even fifty years before anyone would have read the same book as anyone else. And a university community in which across two generations no one has read the same book as anyone else is not a university community.

I know my assumptions are off. For example, I’m not counting books that are read in the library and not checked out. But my point remains: we want our libraries to have nice long tails. Library long tails are where culture is preserved and discovery occurs.

And, having said that, it is perfectly reasonable to work to lower the difference between the Fat Head and the Long Tail, and it is always desirable to help people to find the treasures in the Long Tail. Which means this post is arguing against a straw man: no one actually wants to get rid of the Long Tail. But I prefer to put it that this post argues against a reflex of thought I find within myself and have encountered in others. The Long Tail is a requirement for the development of culture and ideas, and at the same time, we should always help users to bring riches out of the Long Tail

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April 12, 2014

[2b2k] Protein Folding, 30 years ago

Simply in terms of nostalgia, this 1985 video called “Knowledge Engineering: Artificial Intelligence Research at the Stanford Heuristic Programming Project” from the Stanford archives is charming right down to its Tron-like digital soundtrack.

But it’s also really interesting if you care about the way we’ve thought about knowledge. The Stanford Heuristic Programming Project under Edward Feigenbaum did groundbreaking work in how computers represent knowledge, emphasizing the content and not just the rules. (Here is a 1980 article about the Project and its projects.)

And then at the 8:50 mark, it expresses optimism that an expert system would be able to represent not only every atom of proteins but how they fold.

Little could it have been predicted that protein folding even 30 years later would be better recognized by the human brain than by computers, and that humans playing a game — Fold.It — would produce useful results.

It’s certainly the case that we have expert systems all over the place now, from Google Maps to the Nest thermostat. But we also see another type of expert system that was essentially unpredictable in 1985. One might think that the domain of computer programming would be susceptible to being represented in an expert system because it is governed by a finite set of perfectly knowable rules, unlike the fields the Stanford project was investigating. And there are of course expert systems for programming. But where do the experts actually go when they have a problem? To StackOverflow where other human beings can make suggestions and iterate on their solutions. One could argue that at this point StackOverflow is the most successful “expert system” for computer programming in that it is the computer-based place most likely to give you an answer to a question. But it does not look much like what the Stanford project had in mind, for how could even Edward Feigenbaum have predicted what human beings can and would do if connected at scale?

(Here’s an excellent interview with Feigenbaum.)

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April 11, 2014

Boston Marathon: What to remember?

CNN.com is running a post of mine about what we choose to remember about the
Boston Marathon bombing. (For some reason, the editorial staff changed the title to “How did Boston Marathon attack change you?” when it’s really about how we choose to let the attack change us. Oh well.)

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April 9, 2014

[shorenstein] Andy Revkin on communicating climate science

I’m at a talk by Andrew Revkin of the NY Times’ Dot Earth blog at the Shorenstein Center. [Alex Jones mentions in his introduction that Andy is a singer-songwriter who played with Pete Seeger. Awesome!]

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Andy says he’s been a science reporter for 31 years. His first magazine article was about the dangers of the anti-pot herbicide paraquat. (The article won an award for investigative journalism). It had all the elements — bad guys, victims, drama — typical of “Woe is me. Shame on you” environmental reporting. His story on global warming in 1988 has “virtually the same cast of characters” that you see in today’s coverage. “And public attitudes are about the same…Essentially the landscape hasn’t changed.” Over time, however, he has learned how complex climate science is.

In 2010, his blog moved from NYT’s reporting to editorial, so now he is freer to express his opinions. He wants to talk with us today about the sort of “media conversation” that occurs now, but didn’t when he started as a journalist. We now have a cloud of people who follow a journalist, ready to correct them. “You can say this is terrible. It’s hard to separate noise from signal. And that’s correct.” “It can be noisy, but it’s better than the old model, because the old model wasn’t always right.” Andy points to the NYT coverage on the build up to the invasion of Iraq. But this also means that now readers have to do a lot of the work themselves.

He left the NYT in his mid-fifties because he saw that access to info more often than not doesn’t change you, but instead reinforces your positions. So at Pace U he studies how and why people understand ecological issues. “What is it about us that makes us neglect long-term imperatives?” This works better in a blog in a conversation drawing upon other people’s expertise than an article. “I’m a shitty columnist,” he says. People read columns to reinforce their beliefs, although maybe you’ll read George Will to refresh your animus :) “This makes me not a great spokesperson for a position.” Most positions are one-sided, whereas Andy is interested in the processes by which we come to our understanding.

Q: [alex jones] People seem stupider about the environment than they were 20 years ago. They’re more confused.

A: In 1991 there was a survey of museum goers who thought that global warming was about the ozone hole, not about greenhouse gases. A 2009 study showed that on a scale of 1-6 of alarm, most Americans were at 5 (“concerned,” not yet “alarmed”). Yet, Andy points out, the Cap and Trade bill failed. Likewise,the vast majority support rebates on solar panels and fuel-efficient vehicles. They support requiring 45mph fuel efficiency across vehicle fleets, even at a $1K price premium. He also points to some Gallup data that showed that more than half of the respondents worry a great a deal or a fair amount, but that number hasn’t changed since they Gallup began asking the question, in 1989. [link] Furthermore, global warming doesn’t show up as one of the issues they worry about.

The people we need to motivate are innovators. We’ll have 9B on the planet soon, and 2B who can’t make reasonable energy choices.

Q: Are we heading toward a climate tipping point?

A: There isn’t evidence that tipping points in climate are real and if they are, we can’t really predict them. [link]

Q: The permafrost isn’t going to melt?

A: No, it is melting. But we don’t know if it will be catastrophic.

Andy points to a photo of despair at a climate conference. But then there’s Scott H. DeLisi who represents a shift in how we relate to communities: Facebook, Twitter, Google Hangouts. Inside Climate News won the Pulitzer last year. “That says there are new models that may work. Can they sustain their funding?” Andy’s not sure.

“Journalism is a shinking wedge of a growing pie of ways to tell stories.”

“Escape from the Nerd Loop”: people talking to one another about how to communicate science issues. Andy loves Twitter. The hashtag is as big an invention as photovoltaics, he says. He references Chris Messina, its inventor, and points to how useful it is for separating and gathering strands of information, including at NASA’s Asteroid Watch. Andy also points to descriptions by a climate scientist who went to the Arctic [or Antarctic?] that he curated, and to a singing scientist.

Q: I’m a communications student. There was a guy named Marshall McLuhan, maybe you haven’t heard of him. Is the medium the message?

A: There are different tools for different jobs. I could tell you the volume of the atmosphere, but Adam Nieman, a science illustrator, used this way to show it to you.

Q: Why is it so hard to get out of catastrophism and into thinking about solutions?

A: Journalism usually focuses on the down side.If there’s no “Woe is me” element, it tends not to make it onto the front page. At Pace U. we travel each spring and do a film about a sustainable resource farming question. The first was on shrimp-farming in Belize. It’s got thousands of views but it’s not on the nightly news. How do we shift our norms in the media?

[david ropiek] Inherent human psychology: we pay more attention to risks. People who want to move the public dial inherently are attracted to the more attention-getting headlines, like “You’re going to die.”

A: Yes. And polls show that what people say about global warming depends on the weather outside that day.

A report recently drew the connection between climate change and other big problems facing us: poverty, war, etc. What did you think of it?

A: It was good. But is it going to change things? The Extremes report likewise. The city that was most affected by the recent typhoon had tripled its population, mainly with poor people. Andy values Jesse Ausubel who says that most politics is people pulling on disconnected levels.

Q: Any reflections on the disconnect between breezy IPCC executive summaries and the depth of the actual scientific report?

A: There have been demands for IPCC to write clearer summaries. Its charter has it focused on the down sides.

Q: How can we use open data and community tools to make better decisions about climate change? Will the data Obama opened up last month help?

A: The forces of stasis can congregate on that data and raise questions about it based on tiny inconsistencies. So I’m not sure it will change things. But I’m all for transparency. It’s an incredibly powerful tool, like when the US Embassy was doing its own twitter feed on Beijing air quality. We have this wonderful potential now; Greenpeace (who Andy often criticizes) did on-the-ground truthing about companies deforesting organgutang habitats in Indonesia. Then they did a great campaign to show who’s using the palm oil: Buying a Kitkat bar contributes to the deforesting of Borneo. You can do this ground-truthing now.

Q: In the past 6 months there seems to have been a jump in climate change coverage. No?

A: I don’t think there’s more coverage.

Q: India and Pakistan couldn’t agree on water control in part because the politicians talked about scarcity while the people talked in terms of their traditional animosities. How can we find the right vocabularies?

A: If the conversation is about reducing vulnerabilities and energy efficiency, you can get more consensus than talking about global warming.

Q: How about using data visualizations instead of words?

A: I love visualizations. They spill out from journalism. How much it matters is another question. Ezra Klein just did a piece that says that information doesn’t matter.

Q: Can we talk about your “Years of Living Dangerously” piece? [Couldn't hear the rest of the question].

A: My blog is edited by the op-ed desk, and I don’t always understand their decisions. Journalism migrates toward controversy. The Times has a feature “Room for Debate,” and I keep proposing “Room for Agreement” [link], where you’d see what people who disagree about an issue can agree on.

Q: [me] Should we still be engaging with deniers? With whom should we be talking?

A: Yes, we should engage. We taxpayers subsidize second mortgages on houses in wild fire zones in Colorado. Why? So firefighters have to put themselves at risk? [link] That’s an issue that people agree on across the spectrum. When it comes to deniers, we have to ask what exactly are you denying, Particular data? Scientific method? Physics? I’ve come to the conclusion that even if we had perfect information, we still wouldn’t galvanize the action we need.

[Andy ends by singing a song about liberated carbon. That's not something you see every day at the Shorenstein Center.]

[UPDATE (the next day): I added some more links.]

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April 7, 2014

Cluetrain meets Reddit

Cluetrain touted the rise of customer voices. We see through the marketing bullshit and we tell one another about it.

Fine, but there was always the problem that if you’re a consumer products company, you only need 1% of customers to make it look like your products are godawful because a corner was dented. “You totalz Suck PRocter/Gambel!!”

So, here’s a post by an alarmed passenger on a United flight. OMG the window is half out!

But because it’s Reddit, the customer’s concern is answered by someone who knows how planes are constructed. No, the popped-out window isn’t a danger to the integrity of the plane. Customer conversations can help customers get things right.

(By the way, United, you might want to fix that window. It’s upsetting the passengers.)

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April 3, 2014

Hackathon love

Last weekend I was a judge at the Toronto Startup Weekend – Library Edition and was reminded again not ony how much I love hackathons, but how unexpected they are.

Toronto Startup Weekend for Libraries

The Toronto event wasn’t strictly speaking a hackathon. A hundred people met, many pitched ideas, and then people formed teams. They had to come up with a business idea and pitch it to five judges, explaining their idea, perhaps including a demo, showing their research (including user surveys if appropriate), and making the case for it as a sustainable business enterprise. (Non-profits welcome.) It was a fantastic event.

But to keep things simple, consider a classic hackathon: developers get together for a day or a weekend and are challenged to write working code, usually constrained to a particular genre (e.g., games) or using an open data set (e.g., the DPLA hackathon or the Open Syllabus Project hackathon). And the amazing thing is that they do it.

Just think about all that had to happen to make a hackathon possible and not a cruel joke.

We need browsers and HTTP and the ability to request data through them.

We need well-documented, standard ways of requesting that data.

We need open sources of data.

We need Open Source software to let us build on work done by others.

We need frameworks that let us do easy things incredibly easily.

We need libraries so we can do complex things incredibly easily, such as visualizing data.

We need an Internet to connect programs to data, software to users, and everyone to everyone.

We need an ethos that encourages sharing, experimenting, and prototyping — finding what’s right in a project not all that’s gone wrong or has been left unfinished.

I love hackathons.

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March 28, 2014

Why I love the Web, Reason #4,763: The Pulp-o-mizer

So much beautiful work has gone into the free service that is the Pulp-o-mizer — a brilliant way to create your own retro sf covers. It took under 5 minutes to create each of these:

Pulp-O-Mizer_Cover_Image (1)

Pulp-O-Mizer_Cover_Image

Thank you, Pulp-o-mizer! Thank you, Web!

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March 25, 2014

Four people fainted on my flight, plus a Larry David moment

Four people fainted on my flight from Munich to Boston last night. That’s not normal.

The person immediately across the aisle from me was #4. We were beginning our descent when I heard the sound of a coconut hitting the floor. He had tumbled out of his seat and was passed out cold in the aisle. I yelled, “Help! Help!” and before I could get unbuckled, he had been surrounded by a couple of other passengers, some flight attendants, and then by two passengers who the attendants apparently recognized as doctors. After about a minute, he came to and said he felt fine, but they made him continue to lie down, and held his legs up. They also took his blood pressure (which was apparently slightly high) and put a bag of ice on his wrist. After a few minutes, they returned him to his seat, and he said he felt fine. He chatted with the person next to him, and I checked in on him too; he made no mention of being diabetic or having any other condition that might have cause his fainting.

“He’s the fourth on this flight,” the attendant said to the person next to me.

Not normal.

Earlier I had been in the little prep area waiting for a bathroom when I took the opportunity to mention to an attendant that my TV monitor was barely working, and that they should write it up for someone to look at after we landed. She offered to look at it now, but I said that I was just suggesting that she write it up. My point is that I was being the opposite of demanding.

As we were talking, a call light went on, and another attendant told the one I was talking with that there was a medical emergency. My attendant said, “I can’t talk now. There’s an emergency.” “I said, of course! Go go!” She went to help, but a third attendant started acting as if I were insisting on continuing to talk about my stupid TV problem while a passenger was in medical distress. The more I tried to explain that I wasn’t even asking for anything be done during the flight, the more the third attendant insisted that I was trying to place my needs before those of the passenger who had just keeled. With just one more twist — say a passenger I had earlier offended overhearing the conversation and assuming I was being a self-centered a-hole — we would have had a pretty good episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Pretty, pretty good.

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March 23, 2014

[wef] Web Tourism

I’m at the first Web Economy Forum, in Cesena, Italy. It is, unfortunately, terribly under-attended, which is a shame since the first session I’ve gone to was quite good. But it’s being webcast, so we can hope that there are people listening who are not in the room.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Note that because of the translation, these notes are especially rough and choppy.

The first speaker is Prof Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt from the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute in Germany. Chinese travel is increasing: 1 out of ten world travelers are from China. The Net and online media are highly significant to travelers figuring out where to go. Some celebrities who blog when they travel have 50M followers. The biggest online travel agency has recently changed its characterization from online to mobile travel agency. It’s social media, not Web sites, that get people interested; people want to hear from their social group. China already has twice as many people online as the US does.

He takes the local area as an example. He suggests that for a town like Cesena, the customers are not the busloads of travelers but those who have been around Italy, and are looking to move from sightseeing to experience. A single tourist who discovers a local shop can drive more visitors, but a new deal (about which he cannot yet speak) lets a visitor set up an online shop in China through which the Chinese can buy from the Italian shop. [Nice combination of the social, personal, and mercantile.] He gives an example of a Chinese film star driving lots of traffic to a Tasmanian stuffed bear.

The next speaker, Aurkene Alzua-Sorzabal, says that international markets have grown remarkably, but how much has that benefited local regions? We need new anaytics “to support the intelligent monitoring of visitors, in order to anticipate and improve their performance,” so that we can get new insights in complex industries such as the “hospitality field.” Behind all this is Big Data, but that’s just the raw material. How can we use this data for our businesses?

She talks about some tools her group has developed. First they use Big Data to explore pricing. Every 24 hours, they crawl the data on accommodation prices — 12,000 hotels in Spain, 14K in France, etc. They can then ask question such as what is the average rate for 3 star hotels in Bilbao on a given day, or what is the most economical hotel in Paris for Easter. They can forecast pricing for special events in a locality and its surroundings. They can see the weekend effect in Ireland and across countries. They can see the effect of availability on price. She gives more examples and asks how we can better use the digital world to understand the physical world?

Q: People only trust user-generated content that comes from other travelers.

Q: Italy is the 8th destination for travel in the world. Tourism accounts for 10% of the Italian GDP. We need to find the next big way that tourists book their travel. TripAdvisor is an example of how tourism is changing. Tourism is not just about finding a hotel. And Air Bnb, too.

Wolfgang: When the Chinese come to Venice, they’re looking for Marco Polo. Aside from the airport, there’s nothing there. So, they’ve learned through social media that there’s nothing there about Marco Polo, so they stay away. The Chinese are proud that their culture came to Italy. You should be catering to this need.

Q: We have a great UNESCO heritage in this country. What shoud we do?


Q: Maybe cultural goods aren’t the way to sell tourism in emerging countries. In China, Marco Polo is unknown. Young people in America know Rome only because they’ve played Assassin’s Creed. They know our cars and clothes, not our culture. Culture works in a few countries.


A: Wolfgang: That’s not entirely true. It depends on the segments. Marco Polo is taught as part of Chinese history as bringing Chinese culture to Europe. When we surveyed younger Chinese people, Italy is seen as the home of beautiful men, maybe from the statue of David and soccer players. For travel to Europe the main attraction is blue skies, no pollution.


A: Aurkene: People go somewhere because they have a narrative, perhaps from history of movies. But now they lack narratives. These narratives tell them what they’re looking for in a place. It’s not about places but about narratives.


A: Wolfgang: Yes. Cesena has been the home of three Popes. It’s not about history but about power. This is an image you can build on. This place has inspired people to become powerful.


Q: We can’t sell our homes as a product or as an experience. The relation between the people who come and the people who host are the real opportunity and the next big thing: peer to peer. If you get too many people, you lose the relationships.

Q: We should be demanding open data about tourism.

Q: Are we still welcoming?

A: Wolfgang: It’s not enough to say the customer is king without knowing that you have to greet the Japanese man first and the woman all the way at the end, whereas in China it’s a matter of hierarchy, not gender. So you can’t be welcoming without training.

Wolfgang: The broadest segment isn’t nation but language. If you want peer to peer, you have to share a language. And it’s probably going to turn out to be English.

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