Joho the BlogSeptember 2010 - Page 3 of 3 - Joho the Blog

September 5, 2010

[2b2k] Too much science

I finished a first pass through the science chapter of Too Big to Know. It’s supposed to be a practical application of what the book has argued so far — how does networked knowledge work in a discipline that is devoted to truth and reality?

In this book, a chapter should be about 7,500 words. This one is 15,000 words. But it’s that long for a good reason: I don’t know what it’s about. So, I’ve been reading through it, trying to figure out what to cut and how to organize it. For example, I have a 5,000 word subsection that has its own three subsections about science moving from a publishing paradigm to a network model. This afternoon I thought that maybe I could remove the publishing framing, treat the subsections as being part of the stream of subsections, and surprise the reader at the end by pointing out that what we’re actually seeing is science moving from being a type of publishing to becoming a network. That might work — I’m not sure yet — but it still leaves the chapter twice as long as the reader is expecting.

Or wants. The chapter doesn’t frame itself with a question that will catch the reader’s interest. Ulp.

Once I’ve read through the beast and outlined it, I’ll post about its content. Right now, I can’t even remember what’s in it. Which is not a good sign.

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September 4, 2010

Verizon’s False Friends and Dysfunctional Family program

On paper, Verizon’s Friends & Family program is sweet. We can list up to 10 telephone numbers we can call as much as we want without those minutes subtracting from the 2,100 minutes we pay for. (We have five lines.) Verizon also doesn’t count against those 2,100 minutes calls made to other Verizon wireless subscribers.

So, what one piece of information do you need in order to figure out which ten F&F to choose? You need to know which ten numbers outside the Verizon network you have spent the most minutes on. And what information can you not get from the Verizon site, from the person you chat with on the site, or the customer support person on the telephone? Yay!

The site lets you see calls ranked by minutes or expense within each telephone line, but not across all lines. Worse, you can’t tell if the calls are within the Verizon network. The telephone person I spoke with actually was quite kind and spent many minutes looking through our 40-page bill, pulling out useful information. But even she didn’t have the magic query that would answer the question. And it’s really not that hard a question for a computer to answer.

I’m sorry to say that the most plausible explanation is that Verizon simply does not want its customers to make effective use of the Friends & Family program it promotes so heavily.

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September 2, 2010

What’s ours in the Age of Google?

William Gibson has an brilliant op-ed in the NYT about our inability to make sense of an entity like Google. “Google is not ours. Which feels confusing…,” he says. Exactly.

But then I think Gibson misidentifies the cause of the confusion. He continues: “Which feels confusing, because we are its unpaid content-providers, in one way or another.” He says our “every search” is “a miniscule contribution.” But, that’s not why were confused. I’d venture that very few people realize that Google uses our searches to refine future results. And if they did know, I doubt they’d care. Who would expect to be paid for that, any more than we expect any company to pay us for learning from its logs?

The confusion many of us feel about Google is based on a different problem with the “ours.” Yes, “Google is not ours,” as Gibson says. But why on earth would we think that it is? Do we think GM is ours? Ok, bad example, but you know what I mean. It seems to me (i.e., Im guessing and generalizing) that we think confusedly that Google is ours both because as Gibson says it is such an important part of our shared ecosystem and because Google has presented itself as being so consistently on the side of its users.

This started right from the first day Google went on line with a search page that had nothing on it except its logo, a search box, and two buttons. There is nothing on that page that is not there to help users. That search page has become one of the most valuable pieces of “real estate” on the Web, and just about every marketer on the planet would be selling off pieces of it to advertisers. Google did not. This design aesthetic embodies a cultural aesthetic and an ethics that has been relentlessly pro-user. (Craigslist, too. Wikipedia, of course. And many, many sites down the Long Tail.)

Yes, of course many Google pages run ads, which is not something users have asked for or would ask for. Even so, Google has strictly limited the permitted obnoxiousness of ads, a policy that — given Google’s need to make a living — comes across as being on the user’s side. Google sells us to advertisers, but it controls the worst predatory urges of those advertisers.

So, whats confusing about Google is that it feels so much like it is ours — for us, like us, of us. it is not just another entity in our ecology but is an important enabler of it. But, we also know that it’s a corporation out to make money. We don’t know how to make sense of this so long as we hold both sides of what, traditionally, would be a paradox. As Gibson says, we have not seen its like before.

The confusing part reflects the hope: Perhaps in this new world were building for one another on line, we can get past the age-old assumed alienation of business from customer. The Net is ours. We built it for ourselves and for one another. We’ve done so using collaborative techniques few would have predicted would have worked. The Net is ours profoundly. Google has seemed to be the one BigCo that genuinely understands that — understands it beyond a mere alignment of interests dayenu!, understands the depth and importance of the way in which the Net is ours.

So, when Google acts in a way that seems to benefit itself but not us — arguably in its initial proposed Google Books settlement and the Googizon proposal — the violence of the shock measures the depth of our belief that Google is ours — for us, like us, of us. If even Google is not ours, is there then no hope that this time, in this new world, we can get past the structural antagonisms and distrust that have characterized the old world of our economy and culture?

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September 1, 2010

OED goes paperless

The Oxford English Dictionary has announced that it will not print new editions on paper. Instead, there will be Web access and mobile apps.

According to the article in the Telegraph, “A team of 80 lexicographers has been working on the third edition of the OED – known as OED3 – for the past 21 years.”

It has been a long trajectory toward digitization for the OED. In the 1990s, the OED’s desire to produce a digital version (remember books on CD?) stimulated search engine innovation. To search the OED intelligently, the search engine would have to understand the structure of entries, so that it could distinguish the use of a word as that which is being defined, the use of it within a definition, the use of it within an illustrative quote, etc. SGML was perfect for this type of structure, and the Open Text SGML search engine came out of that research. Tim Bray [twitter:timbray] was one of the architects of that search engine, and went on to become one of the creators of XML. I’m going to assume that some of what Tim learned from the OED project was formative of his later thinking… (Disclosure: I worked at Open Text in the mid-1990s.)

On the other hand, initially, the OED didn’t want to attribute the origins of the word “blog” to Peter Merholz because he coined it in his own blog, and the OED would only accept print attributions. (See here, too.) the OED eventually got over this prejudice for printed sources, however, and gave Peter proper credit.

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