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March 31, 2012

[2b2k] The commoditizing and networking of facts

Ars Technica has a post about Wikidata, a proposed new project from the folks that brought you Wikipedia. From the project’s introductory page:

Many Wikipedia articles contain facts and connections to other articles that are not easily understood by a computer, like the population of a country or the place of birth of an actor. In Wikidata you will be able to enter that information in a way that makes it processable by the computer. This means that the machine can provide it in different languages, use it to create overviews of such data, like lists or charts, or answer questions that can hardly be answered automatically today.

Because I had some questions not addressed in the Wikidata pages that I saw, I went onto the Wikidata IRC chat (http://webchat.freenode.net/?channels=#wikimedia-wikidata) where Denny_WMDE answered some questions for me.

[11:29] hi. I’m very interested in wikidata and am trying to write a brief blog post, and have a n00b question.

[11:29] go ahead!

[11:30] When there’s disagreement about a fact, will there be a discussion page where the differences can be worked through in public?

[11:30] two-fold answer

[11:30] 1. there will be a discussion page, yes

[11:31] 2. every fact can always have references accompanying it. so it is not about “does berlin really have 3.5 mio people” but about “does source X say that berlin has 3.5 mio people”

[11:31] wikidata is not about truth

[11:31] but about referenceable facts

When I asked which fact would make it into an article’s info box when the facts are contested, Denny_WMDE replied that they’re working on this, and will post a proposal for discussion.

So, on the one hand, Wikidata is further commoditizing facts: making them easier and thus less expensive to find and “consume.” Historically, this is a good thing. Literacy did this. Tables of logarithms did it. Almanacs did it. Wikipedia has commoditized a level of knowledge one up from facts. Now Wikidata is doing it for facts in a way that not only will make them easy to look up, but will enable them to serve as data in computational quests, such as finding every city with a population of at least 100,000 that has an average temperature below 60F.

On the other hand, because Wikidata is doing this commoditizing in a networked space, its facts are themselves links — “referenceable facts” are both facts that can be referenced, and simultaneously facts that come with links to their own references. This is what Too Big to Know calls “networked facts.” Those references serve at least three purposes: 1. They let us judge the reliability of the fact. 2. They give us a pointer out into the endless web of facts and references. 3. They remind us that facts are not where the human responsibility for truth ends.

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March 28, 2012

The Gettysburg Principles for keeping your customers

I’ve got a post at the Harvard Business Review site about what I’m calling (not too seriously) The Gettysburg Principles. The point is that you can keep your customers buying from you if your business is of your customers, by your customers, and for your customers. “Of” means that your business is made up of people like your customers. “By” means that your customers are contributing to the creation of your product. “For” your customers means you put them first. These three terms give a handy way of analyzing why customers stick with some businesses even if they have to pay a bit more or make some other adjustments.

Anyway, there’s more over at HBR…

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[misc] Thesaurus of metaphors

Or maybe it’s a dictionary. Or an encyclopedia. In any case, The Mind is a Metaphor you can look up metaphors by keyword and facet the results by date, genre, nationality, gender, etc. (Note that these are facets of the speaker, not of the metaphor.)

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March 26, 2012

Kew Gardens adopts Web principles for real-world wayfinding

In a paper Natasha Waterson and Mike Saunders describe how Kew Botanical Gardens in England are adopting mobile technology to help visitors become “delightfully lost.” From the abstract:

In October 2010, Kew Gardens commissioned an in-depth study of visitors’ motivations and information needs around its 300-acre site, with the express aim that it should guide the development of new mobile apps. The work involved over 1,500 visitor-tracking observations, 350 mini-interviews, 200 detailed exit interviews, and 85 fulfilment maps; and gave Kew an incredibly useful insight into its visitors’ wants, needs, and resulting behaviours.

It turns out that most Kew visitors have social, emotional, and spiritual, rather than intellectual, motivations during their time here. They do not come hoping to find out more, and they don’t want or need to know precisely where they are all the time. In fact, they love the sense of unguided exploration and the serendipitous discoveries they make at Kew—they want to become “delightfully lost.”

But as I read the actual paper, I was repeatedly struck by how often one could swap “in the Gardens” for “on the Web.” The motivations, the cognitive space, the tools and techniques often mirrored the Web’s. Indeed, one could argue that our experience of the Web is affecting how we view wayfinding in the real world, and not just because the Kew project integrates the offline and online worlds via mobiles, QRcodes, etc. Rather, the sense of serendipity, the loose connections, the desire to be able to follow one’s interests, the expectation that one will always be able to get more information about something, and the desire to contribute back — this is a public space we’re building together — all feel webby. Indeed, the paper’s overall point is that architects of information spaces ought not pick a single motive for those spaces’ users, and that is one of the fundamental lessons of the newly miscellanized world.

(Hat-tip to Hanan Cohen for the link.)

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March 25, 2012

What you see animates into what you get

I spent too much time yesterday debugging a table in the Wikipedia markup language (on a different Wikimedia wiki). This would have come in handy:

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March 24, 2012

Birthday Girl: The Story

My friend Evelyn Walsh’s short story “Birthday Girl” is the Story of the Week at Narrative Magazine. It’s a carefully observed little tale of norms and ethics embodied in a sleep-deprived suburban mom’s desire to do the right thing by everyone. From my point of view, it’s about how difficult it is to negotiate a community of acquaintances.

But I’m making it sound too heavy. It’s a fun, suspenseful read, and well worth the free registration at the site.

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March 23, 2012

VisiCalc: The first killer app’s unveiling

VisiCalc was the first killer app. It became the reason people bought a personal computer.

You can read a paper presented in 1979 by one of its creators, Bob Frankston, in which he explains what it does and why it’s better than learning BASIC. Yes, VisiCalc’s competitor was a programming language. (Here’s Bob reading part I of his paper.)

Bob of course acknowledges Dan Bricklin as VisiCalc’s original designer. (Here’s Dan re-reading the original announcement.) Bob and Dan founded the company Software Arts, which developed VisiCalc. Since then, both have spent their time in commercial and public-spirited efforts trying to make the Internet a better place for us all.

visicalc screenshot
from wikipedia

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March 22, 2012

Harold Feld’s explanation of an FCC issue you probably are paying no attention to but that is likely to determine the fate of telecommunications in the US

In fact, Harold’s post is so long that I’m only half way through it, but I have to leave for a plane. In it he explains in some detail the history and ramifications of… well, here’s a taste from near the beginning:

…Verizon graciously offered to buy out Cox’s AWS spectrum so that Cox could get out of the wireless business. And, in what can only be an amazing coincidence for utterly independent agreements that should in no way make anyone think that the major cable players are colluding with their Telco/Wireless chief rival, Verizon and Spectrumco offered to let Cox in on the same three agreements to become exclusive resllers and become a member of the “Joint Operating Entity” (JOE) to develop all these cool new technologies.
So you see, it’s all totally innocent, and does not in the least look like a cartel agreeing not to compete, dividing up markets, and setting up a Joint Operating Entity so they can continue to meet and discuss their business plans on an ongoing basis while developing a patent portfolio to use against competitors like DISH and T-Mobile…

Harold Feld works for Public Knowledge, which works for an open Internet.

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March 20, 2012

[2b2k] 14 reasons why the Britannica failed on paper

In the straight-up match between paper and Web, the Encyclopedia Britannica lost. This was as close to a sure thing as we get outside of the realm of macro physics and Meryl Streep movies.

  1. The EB couldn’t cover enough: 65,000 topics compared to the almost 4M in the English version of Wikipedia.

  2. Topics had to be consistently shrunk or discarded to make room for new information. E.g., the 1911 entry on Oliver Goldsmith was written by no less than Thomas Macaulay, but with each edition, it got shorter and shorter. EB was thus in the business of throwing out knowledge as much as it was in the business of adding knowledge.

  3. Topics were confined to rectangles of text. This is of course often a helpful way of dividing up the world, but it is also essentially false. The “see also’s” and the attempts at synthetic indexes and outlines (Propædi) helped, but they were still highly limited, and cumbersome to use.

  4. All the links were broken.

  5. It was expensive to purchase.

  6. If you or your family did not purchase it, using it required a trip to another part of town where it was available only during library hours.

  7. It was very slow to update — 15 editions since 1768 — even with its “continuous revision” policy.

  8. Purchasers were stuck with an artifact that continuously became wronger.

  9. Purchasers were stuck with an artifact that continuously became less current.

  10. It chose topics based on agendas and discussions that were not made public.

  11. You could not see the process by which articles were written and revised, much less the reasoning behind those edits.

  12. It was opaque about changes and errors.

  13. There were no ways for readers to contribute or participate. For example, underlining in it or even correcting errors via marginalia would get you thrown out of the library. It thus crippled the growth of knowledge through social and networked means.

  14. It was copyrighted, making it difficult for its content to be used maximally.

Every one of the above is directly or indirectly a consequence of the fact that the EB was a paper product.

Paper doesn’t scale.

Paper-based knowledge can’t scale.

The Net scales.

The Net scales knowledge.

 


I should probably say something nice about the Britannica:

  1. Extremely smart, very dedicated people worked on it.

  2. It provided a socially safe base for certain sorts of knowledge claims.

  3. Owning it signaled that one cared about knowledge, and it’s good for our culture for us to be signaling that sort of thing.

 


The inestimably smart and wise Matthew Battles has an excellent post on the topic (which I hesitate to recommend only because he refers to “Too Big to Know” overly generously).

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March 19, 2012

Those darn kids and their texts — and their not geolocating

Here’s Pew Internet’s bulleted summary of a new survey of teens and their texts:

  • Texting continues to cement its place as the central communications tool of teen social life – the frequency and overall volume of texts are both up since 2009.

  • Voice calling on both mobile phones and (in some circumstances) on landlines is in decline.

  • The heaviest texters are also the heaviest talkers. Teens who text the most are also the most likely to make calls, talk with people face to face outside of school, and use social network sites.

  • One quarter of teens have a smartphone. The oldest teens (ages 16 and 17) are the most likely to report smartphone ownership. Otherwise, there are few demographic differences between smartphone and regular cell phone owners.

  • Smartphone owners are more likely than regular phone owners to: use tablets to go online; use a location-based service on their cell phone, use social media sites, send and receive texts on a typical day.

  • Only a small fraction of American teens use location-based services on their cell phones – 6% of teens 12-17 use the services to share their location.

I found that last bullet surprising. Are the teens showing surprisingly mature caution, or did they just not find the “on” button yet?

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