Joho the BlogSeptember 2009 - Page 3 of 5 - Joho the Blog

September 18, 2009

The temptation of stories

Journalism at its best is a way to uncover and communicate the truth, subject to all the usual human limitations. But journalism’s fundamental form, the story itself, brings a special temptation to manipulate the truth for economic or aesthetic reasons. The temptation is resistible to varying degrees, depending on the type of story (the temptations are greater for feature stories than for hard-core reportage of the day’s events), the nature of the journal, and the standing of journalist. Nevertheless, the temptation is there, built into the form itself.

The very idea that there’s a story is itself a temptation. Maybe the story is on Facebook addiction or the rise in incivility. A journalist who goes back to her editor and says, “Nope, no story there” has disappointed the editor who now has to find another story to fill the hole in the paper newspaper or to feed the maw of the online publication. Not a big deal; it happens all the time. But if it’s fifth consecutive time that the reporter says there was no story there, it’s getting to be a problem. If it’s the reporter who has suggested the stories in the first place, as is often the case at many publications, she will be judged a failure because she’s wasted her time and gummed up the editor’s planning.

It’s not like it’s supposed to be in science, where a failed hypothesis is as valuable as a proved one, even though of course every scientist would rather discover that a new compound cures cancer than that it doesn’t. A failed hypothesis in the world of journalism is a story that won’t run, that won’t bring in readers, that won’t give businesses a page on which to place an ad. There are real prices to stories failing to pan out. Reporters are thus tempted to make the story work.

Even when the hypothesis of a story is true, journalists almost always reach a place in the story where they know what they want their interviewees to say. An interview is requested of a particular person to provide the “some experts disagree” statement or the “the implications of this are vast” verbiage. If that person doesn’t provide it, someone else will. Depending on the stage of the story, the interviewee may spark interest in a side issue or an approach the reporter hadn’t considered…resulting in someone else being called to provide the other side or the amplification.

This happens at some of stage of the story even when the topic is interesting no matter what storyline it takes. For example, the death of Pat Tillman is interesting because it is instantly symbolic: Football star turns down a life of fame and wealth in order to defend his country, and dies a soldier’s death in Afghanistan. Beyond the basic reportage the day that it happened, it was bound to inspire journalistic stories. A reporter could enter with an open mind. Even so, she’ll enter with an open mind looking for an angle, which is to say, looking for a story. Is it a relatively simple narrative of an inspiring patriot who gave his life to support his ideals? Or was there “more” to it? That search for the “more” isn’t simply a hunt for unknown truths. It’s a search for a narrative that reveals the simple surface to be a veneer from which we will learn something unexpected. The reporter may have no idea what the more is, but once she gets a hint of it, she’ll be on it, and the narrative itself — if not personal ambition — will carry her forward. Maybe Tillman wasn’t as virtuous as we thought. Maybe his death wasn’t as straightforward as we were told. Maybe his story was of a life fulfilled or of a life wasted or of a life more complex than we’d thought. Maybe it’s about the government’s cynical use of him, or of the media’s own eagerness to find a hero. But something will emerge. And as it emerges, it gathers its story around it, and the reporter is off looking for the voices who will play certain roles in the story. Why? Because the story demands it.

At the very least, the temptation journalistic stories is that of all story-telling, the basic way we humans make sense of our world. Stories, not just in journalism, are about the gradual revealing of truth. The surface wasn’t as it seemed. The ending was contained, hidden, in the beginning. What looked continuous was in fact disruptive. Stories have a shape, and story-tellers fit the pieces into that shape. There’s nothing wrong with that, except in an environment where there’s economic and social pressure to produce a story. Then the temptation is to get the pieces to fit. And that can corrode the truth.

So can the simple fact that stories tend towards closure. They end. They’re done. Some circle of understanding has been drawn and closed, tip to tip. The story says, simply by ending. “This is what you needed to know.” There can often be truth in that, but there is always falsity in it. The world, its events, and its people escape even the best of stories.

Stories are not going away from journalism, just as they’re not going away from history, biography, or how we talk about our day over dinner. They’re fundamental. Stories are how we understand, but they also inevitably are constructions, incomplete, and organized around a point of view. All stories are temptations. Journalistic stories have their own special and strong temptations because of their economics and because of the nature of the medium in which they’ve been embodied. Now those economics and that medium are changing, diminishing the old temptations but creating new ones:

::: Because we are increasingly turning to publications that explicitly take a stand, the temptation to include false views for “balance” is diminished. But, the preference for partisan media creates a new temptation: To over-state, in order to attract attention. [Guilty as charged!]

::: The old medium limited the length of stories, forcing unnecessary trimming except in very special circumstances. The new medium has infinite space so that stories can be right-sized. But it turns out that prolixity discourages on-line readers, so the new temptation is toward brevity. It’s not clear if that’s an expression of an impatience that’s always been with us or if the new medium constitutes a new temptation.

::: The old medium’s inability to embed links encouraged journalists to try to encapsulate the world in a single column of text. The new hyperlinked medium can tempt authors to gloss over points and contradictions because they’ve put in some links, putting the burden on readers who are (usually) lazier than the writers.

::: The economics of the old medium tempted publications to appear valuable by being a reliable source of the single truth. While they of course have encouraged discourse on controversial topics, their bread and butter have been stories that “get it right” and thus serve as a stopping point for belief. Stories are the bulwark of authority, and authority is the currency of the old journalistic economics. The new medium now can include as many stories as we want, from as many different points of view, connected by curators above the stories and by hyperlinks within the stories. The story no longer has to tell the whole truth. It’s just one of the stories. But, while that’s true of the ecosystem as a whole, the old temptation to be a single-source truth shop exists for individual online publications, whether they’re commercial or personal.

Now, the form I’ve adopted for this essay, which is itself a type of story-telling, is one of balance: Old temptations matched by new temptations. It’s a form that aims at inspiring trust: “See, I’m presenting both sides!” And that itself can be corrosive. Indeed, in this case it is. While the old temptations are being replaced by new ones, the locus of truth is moving decisively from individual stories and publications to the network of stories and publications. The balancing of temptations misses this most important change. The hyperlinked context of stories creates not only new temptations to go wrong, but a greater possibility for going right.

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[berkman] Transforming Scholarly Communication

Lee Dirks [site] Director of Education and Scholarly Communication at Microsoft External Research is giving a Berkman-sponsored talk on “Transforming Scholarly Communications.” His group works with various research groups “to develop functionality that we think would benefit the community overall,” with Microsoft possibly as a facilitator. (Alex Wade from his group is also here.)

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.

He begins by noting the “data deluge.” But, compuing is stepping up to the problem: Massive data sets, evolution of multicore, and the power of the cloud. We’ll need all that (Lee says) because the workflow for processing all the new info we’re gathering hasn’t kept up with the amount we’re taking in via sensor networks, global databases, laboratory instruments, desktops, etc. He points to the Life Under Your Feet project at Johns Hopkins as an example. They have 200 wireless computers, each with 10 sensors, monitoring air and soil temperature and moisture, and much more. (Microsoft funds it.) Lee recommends Joe Hellerstein’s blog if you’re interested in “the commoditization of massive data analysis.” We’re at the very early stages of this, Lee says. For e-scientists and e-researchers, there’s just too much: too much data, too much workflow, too much “opportunity.”


We need to move upstream in the research lifecycle: 1. collect data and do research, 2. author it, 3. publish, and then 4. store and archive it. That store then feeds future research and analysis. Lee says this four-step lifecycle needs collaboration and discovery. Libraries and archives spend most of their time in stage 4, but they ought to address the problems much early on. The most advanced thinkers are working on these earlier stages.


“The trick there is integration.” Some domains are quite proprietary about their data, which makes it problematic to get data and curation standards so that the data can move from system to system. From Microsoft’s perspective, the question is how can they move from static summaries to much richer information vehicles. Why can’t a research reports be containers that facilitate reproducible science? It should help you use your methodology against its data set. Alter data and see the results, and then share it. Collaborate real time with other researchers. Capture reputation and influence. Dynamic documents. [cf. Interleaf Active Documents, circa 1990. The dream still lives!]


On the commercial side, Elsevier has been running an “Article of the Future Competition.” Other examples: PLoS Currents: Influenza. Nature Preceedings. Google Wave. Mendeley (“iTunes for academic papers”). These are “chinks in the armor of the peer review system.”


Big changes, Lee says. We’ll see more open access and new economic models, particularly adding services on top of content. We’ll see a world in which data is increasingly easily sharable. E.g., the Sloan Digital Sky Survey ios a prototyupe in data publishing: 350M web hits in 6yrs, 930k distinct users, 10k astronmers, delivered 100B rows of data. Likewise, GalaxyZoo.org at which the public can classify galaxies and occasionally discover a new object or two.


Lee points to challenges with data sharing: integrating it, annotating, maintaining provenance and quality, exporting in agreed formats, security. These issues have stopped some from sharing data, and have forced some communities to remain proprietary. “The people who can address these problems in creative ways” will be market leaders moving forward.


Lee points to some existing sharing and analysis services. Swivel, IBM’s Many Eyes, Google’s Gapminder, Freebase, CSA’s Illustra…


The business models are shifting. Publishers are now thinking about data sharing services. IBM and RedHat provides an interesting model: Giving the code away but selling services. Repositories will contain not only the full text versions of reserach papers, but also “gray” literature “such as technical reports and theses,” and real-time streaming data, images and software. We need enhanced interoperability protocols.


E.g., Data.gov provides a searchable data catalog that provides access through the raw data and using various tools. Lee also likes WorldWideScience.org, “a global science gateway” to international scientific databases. Sxty-sevenety countries are pooling their scientific data and providing federated search.


Lee believes that semantic computing will provide fantastic results, although it may take a while. He points to Cameron Neylon’s discussion of the need to generate lab report feeds. (Lee says the Semantic Web is just one of the tools that cojuld be used for semantics-based computing,.) So, how do we take advantage of this? Recommender systems, as at Last.fm and Amazon. Connotea and BioMedCentral’s Faculty of 1000 are early examples of this [LATER: Steve Pog’s comment below says Faculty of 1000 is not owned by BioMedCentral] . Lee looks forward to the automatic correlation of scientific data and the “smart composition of services and functionality,” in which the computers do the connecting. And we’re going to need the cloud to do this sort of thing, both for the computing power and for the range of services that can be brought to bear on the distributed collection of data.


Lee spends some time talkingabout the cloud. Among other points, he points to SciVee and Viddler as interesting examples. Also, SmugMug as a photo aggregator that owns none of its own infrastructure. Also Slideshare and Google Docs. But these aren’t quite what researchers need, which is an opportunity. Also interesting: NSF DataNet grants.


When talking about preservation and provenance, Lee cites DuraSpace and its project, DuraCloud. It’s a cross-repository space with services added. Institutions pay for the service.


Lee ends by pointing to John Wilbanks‘ concern about the need for a legal and policy infrastructure that enables and encourages sharing. Lee says that at the end of the day, it’s not software, but providing incentives and rewards to get people to participate.


Q: How soon will this happen?
A: We can’t predict which domains will arise and which ones people will take to.


Q: What might bubble up from the consumer sector?
A: It’s an amazing space to watch. There are lots of good examples already?


Q: [me] This is great to have you proselytizing outside. But as an internal advocate inside Microsoft, what does Msft still have to do, and what’s the push back?
A: We’ve built 6-8 add-ins for Word for semantic markup, scholarly writing, consumption of ontologies. A repository platform. An open source foundation separate from Micrsooft, contributing to Linux kernel, etc.

Q: You’d be interested in Dataverse.org.
A: Yes, it sounds like it.


Q: Data is agnostic, but how articles aren’t…
A: We’re trying to figure out how to embed and link. But we’re also thinking about how you do it without the old containers, on the Web, in Google Wave, etc.
Q: Are you providing a way to ID relationships?
A: In part. For people using their ordinary tools (e.g., Word), we’re providing ways to import ontologies, share them with the repository or publisher, etc.


Q: How’s auto-tagging coming? The automatic creation of semantically correct output?
A: We’re working on this. A group at Oxford doing cancer research allows researchers to semantically annotate within Excel, so that the spreadsheet points to an ontology that specifies the units, etc. Fluxnet.org is an example of collaborative curation within a single framework.


Q: Things are blurring. Traditionally libraries collect, select and preserve schoilarly info. What do you think the role of the library will be?
A: I was an academic librarian. In my opinion, the safe world of collecting library journals has been done. We know how to do it. The problem these days is data curation, providing services, working with publishers.
Q: It still takes a lot of money…
A: Definitely. But the improvements are incremental. The bigger advances come further up the stream.

Q: Some cultures will resist sharing…
A: Yes. It’ll vary from domain to domain, and within domains. In some cases we’ll have to wait a generation.


Q: What skills would you give a young librarian?
A: I don’t have a pat answer for you. But, a service orientation would help, building services on top of the data, for example. Multi-disciplinary partnerships.


Q: You’re putting more info online. Are you seeing the benefit of that?
A: Most researchers already have Microsoft software, so we’re not putting the info up in order to sell more. We’re trying to make sure researchers know what’s there for them.

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Interview about e-gov ‘n’ stuff

Ulrike Reinhard has posted a video interview she did with me yesterday in preparation for the Reboot_D – Digital Democracy conference in Germany. We talk about e-gov, transparency, and whether the Web is a “third place.”


And, while I’m on the topic of videos, here’s a somewhat more lively one:

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September 17, 2009

Reuse metadata, don’t reinvent it

John Udell has a lovely post talkingabout an interview with Ian Forrester of the BBC who cites Tom Scott using a phrase from Michael Smethurst: “The simple joy of webscale identifiers.” The point is that if someone has invented an identifier for an object and you want to point to it, use the existing identifier. That enables a namespace conglomerating that keeps information all huddled and cozy, rather than drifting apart on ice floes.

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September 15, 2009

God of Carnage: Eh

I’m not sure if the following contains spoilers, since part of the problem is that “The God of Carnage” was so predictable that I’m not sure if we were supposed to know from the beginning what would happen. So, while I’ll steer clear of outright plot spoilers, I am going to talk about the general progression and strategy of the play, so don’t read any further if you’re thinking of seeing the show. On the other hand, if you’re thinking of seeing the show, you ought to read a little further just to give yourself a chance to change your mind.

“The God of Carnage” won a Tony for best drama and for best actress for Marcia Gay Hayden. So obviously the experts saw something that I didn’t. I saw a play that from the beginning was obvious in its intent: Two couples would come unglued. Civilization would be revealed as a shiny surface believed in by liberals (obvious as soon as we learn one of the characters is writing a book about Darfur), masking the dog-eat-dog, name-calling bestiality waiting to break through at any moment. The play proceeds by giving each configuration of the four a moment, and each person a revelatory scene. By the book. By the book.

The acting was pretty disappointing, especially given that the four stars — on stage pretty much for the entire 80 minutes — are Hayden, James Gandolfini, Hope Davis, and Jeff Daniels. Wow. I actually don’t blame them. The writing — or perhaps the translation — is just awkward. It’s stuff nobody would actually say, and not because it’s so clever. It’s stuffy language.

The play was written by Yasmina Reza. I liked her “Art” better, although that seemed to me to be more superficial than it intended. Still, it at least was about something. “God of Carnage” isn’t. And although there are a couple of funny moments — Jeff Daniels on the phone — and some of the acting was enjoyable — Gandolfini smiling — I’m beginning to think that Yasmina Reza is the French Neil Simon, except more pretentious and not even as funny. (And please note that I am not a big Simon fan.)

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Posts I stopped reading after three sentences

As we were waiting for the Bolt Bus back to Boston, we watched the Beautiful People interviewing one another outside the Manhattan Center. A sign announced the G-Star Raw Runway event. So, I googled it and found an article at FashionIndie that began this way:

With only three days left of runway madness, the tents at Bryant Park sure have some catching up to do. Call me an awe-struck runway rookie, but last night’s G-Star Raw Fall 2009 runway show gave every other show this week a run for its money. Three parallel runways, dimmed track lighting and eerie classical music set the mood for G-Star’s industrial funeral themed show.

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September 14, 2009

Broadband strategy public issue-raiser

The Broadband strategy initiative of the FCC has set up a site where anyone can pose a topic, discuss it, or vote it up or down.

The top-ranked issue at the moment is a meta-issue: Revise the voting scheme on the site, to avoid gaming the system. That’s probably a useful suggestion. But it’s good in any case to see the FCC using modern tools to provide open fora.

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Mobius Bach

Bach’s Crab Canon is a string of notes designed to be played front to back and back to front. In this video, it’s turned into a Mobius strip and played.

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September 13, 2009

From Technorati to WordPress tag namespace

The excessively sharp-eyed of you may have noticed that I have recently switch from listing tags at the end of posts to using WordPress tags at the end of posts. Here’s why. Not that you should care.

When tagging first took off, there weren’t a lot of good places to link your tags to. So, I chose to have them link to Technorati because Technorati was then the leading search engine for blogs. Plus, Technorati had taken the lead in making itself tag-worthy. Plus, Technorati was founded by a friend of mine — David Sifry — who I trusted (and still do trust) to do the Right Thing. Also, I was on the Technorati board of advisers (uncompensated), so I had some basic familiarity with the site and the the people. As a result, when you click on one of my old-style tags, it does a search for tags at Technorati and shows you the results. For example, here’s a tag to try: [Tags: ].

A couple of years ago, Word Press — the blogging software I use — introduced its own tagging capability. Instead of my having to hand-create links to the tags I want to use (actually, I wrote a little javascript to do it for me), I can enter tags and Word Press will turn them into links that aggregate all of my own postings that I’ve tagged that way. At the bottom of this post, you can try out the taxonomy link.

This is a further step into narcissism, for rather than seeing what the rest of the world has tagged “e-gov” (or whatever), you now see only my posts tagged that way. But I suspect that is probably what most users expect and want when they click on a tag at the bottom of a post. If you want to search all posts by everyone that have a certain tag, Technorati and other sites will do it for you.

(By the way, many thanks to Brad Sucks for writing the scripts that extracted my old tags and auto-inserted them as Word Press tags. He says the scripts are too focused to be of general use, so don’t ask. But do buy his music.)

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September 12, 2009

Michael Geist’s Summa Copyrightica

Michael Geist, who has been leading the fight for sane copyright legislation in Canada, has posted his submission to the Canadian government advising on the shape of reform. What follows is by no means a complete summary. For example, I have skipped some recommendations specific to the proposed Canadian law. And I’m also certainly going to put many things inadequately. So, read it yourself. Please.

First, why does copyright matter?

For me, copyright matters because I am a professor and my students need access to copyrighted materials and the freedom to use those materials. It matters because I am a researcher who needs assurance that as materials are archived they will not be locked down under digital rights management. It matters because I am deeply concerned about privacy and fear that DRM could be harmful to my personal privacy. It matters because I have created videos and need flexibility in the law to allow for remix and transformed works and do not want my content taken down from the Internet based on unproven claims. It matters because I am a writer and I need certainty of access to speak freely. It matters because I am a consumer of digital entertainment and I want the law to reasonably reflect the right to view the content on the device of my choice. It matters because I am a parent whose children have only known life with the Internet and I want to ensure that they experience all the digital world has to offer. It matters because I live in a city with a strong connection to the digital economy and we need forward-looking laws to allow the next generation of companies to thrive. It matters because I am a proud Canadian who wants laws based not on external political pressure, but rather on the best interest of millions of Canadians.

Then, “seven areas of copyright reform.”

1. Expand the “fair dealing” provision of the proposed Canadian law, thus expanding what we in the US call fair use. Michael advises against trying to enumerate all exceptions, but says that if they must be counted, they should include parody and satire, time shifting, format shifting, music shifting, and teaching. (I’m surprised that Michael doesn’t ask for exemptions (or expansions) for scholarly works and political commentary, but IANAL and I am definitely not a Canadian lawyer.)

2. When it comes to laws preventing the circumvention of anti-copying mechanisms, “The experience in the United States, where anti-circumvention provisions effectively trump fair use rights, provides the paradigm example of what not do to. It should only be a violation of the law to circumvent a technological protection measure (TPM) if the underlying purpose is to infringe copyright.” Also, don’t ban devices that circumvent if they have non-infringing uses. Also, create “authorized circumventers” such as archivists. Also, require DRM-ers to unlock their content for those who have a right to it.

3. “Canadian law should include an explicit safe harbour that insulates intermediaries from liability where they follow a prescribed model that balances the interests of users and content owners. The ideal Canadian model would be a ‘notice and notice’ system that has been used successfully for many years on an informal basis.”

Also, reject the “Three strikes” provision. “Internet access is far too important to establish a system that would cut off access based on unproven allegations of infringement.”

4. Expand the right to make backups to all digital consumer products. And remove the statutory damages that in US bankrupts individual music sharers, rather than being applied to commercial-scale infringers.

5. Enhance the public domain. Don’t extend the length of copyright even further, you crazy bastards. [Ok, I’m editorializing here a little.] Also, eliminate the “crown copyright” that keeps government works out of the public domain.

6. Rather than introducing a special exception for education, Michael recommends “a more flexible fair dealing provision … that treats educators, creators, and all Canadians in an equitable manner.”

7. Prohibit restrictions on “core protections” that are “buried beneath the ‘I agree’ button.”

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