Joho the BlogSeptember 2012 - Joho the Blog

September 30, 2012

[2b2] A moon from Mars

Someday I’ll figure out the threads that bind the mere sentences that make me fill with tears. Sometimes it’s sadness, but surprisingly often it’s joy.

Here’s today’s joy:

Look in the upper right for a crescent-shaped smudge. That’s Phobos, one of Mars’ two moons.

Emily Lakdawalla writes in her blog:

Think about this for a moment — we’re seeing a different moon from the surface of a different world. And this moon is weird not just for its lumpiness, but also because it orbits so close to Mars that it outpaces Mars’ rotation. That means it rises in the west and sets in the east, more than twice every Martian day. Completely alien. And awesome, in the literal sense of the world.

It turns me into a soppy ol’ Boehner.

Here’s a close-up of Phobos:

Emily adds:

I would not have noticed this image were it not for the ever-watchful members of (user “fredk” this time). I’m so grateful for that community. We’re running a fundraiser right now to support our hosting costs — if you, too, value the beautiful images and constant attentiveness of this community of volunteers and amateurs, please consider making a donation to support it.


September 29, 2012

[2b2k] Knowledge and the future of story-telling

I’m leading one of the many sessions at the Future of Story-telling conference this week. They’ve got an interesting methodology: They produced a short video for each of the sessions. Attendees are required to watch all 15 in order to decide which sessions to go to. The sessions are open discussions on the topics in the videos, without any slide decks, etc. It’s a really interesting set of discussion leaders. I’m expecting it to be unique and provocative.

Here’s the video they produced for me:

(My one concern about the conference: They do not want us using computers, smart phones, etc., to keep us “present.” But the Net is my present!)

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September 27, 2012

[2b2k] What knowledge is losing

Jon Lebkowsky in a discussion of Too Big to Know at The Well asked, “What new roles are emerging that weren’t there before?”

Here’s part of my answer (with a few typos fixed):

Taxonomies, nomenclatures, classification. Having common ways to refer to things is really helpful. We can make up for them to at least some degree by cross-walking and mapping. It’s always going to be messy. The rise of unique IDs and namespaces is helping a great deal.

Filters. We used to not worry about filters because all we could get was the filtered product. Now we have to worry about them all the time. But we also now filter forward rather than filter out: When the site puts together a front page with 10 items on it from around the Web, all the other items that didn’t make it onto the front page are still fully available; has merely shortened the number of clicks it takes to get to its ten.

Consensus. We used to think that we “all” agreed on some things. We had authorities we “all” trusted. Now we have communities of belief. Links and conversation can help us get past the fragmentation that makes us stupid, but not past all fragmentation.

But we should keep in mind that we’ve lost these old formations to a large degree because they don’t scale, and because they presented themselves to us under false pretenses: they were never as baked into the world as they seemed.

It’s our knowledge now.

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September 26, 2012

Hollywood’s most over-used exit line

Huffpo has a compilation of “Check please!” being used as an exit line in Hollywood movies. It then makes the completely unsubtantiated claim that it’s the most over-used exit line.

Tish tosh! I proffer my own two unsubstantiated claimants to that title:

The first is “I think that went well” after some plan has gone disastrously wrong.,

But the most over-used exit line in Hollywood films is, by a landslide: Not saying goodbye when hanging up the phone.


September 25, 2012

Explaining Mitt: An hypothesis

Like many people, I’m scratching my head trying to understand how Romney can say some of the things that he’s said over the past few months.

After he offered to bet Rick Perry $10,000 at one of the debates, you know his handlers took him aside and said something like, “Governor Romney, the bet was a good idea. Punchy and fun. But, just so you know, $10,000 is a lot of money to most people. Just knock off two or three zeroes next time. In fact, that’s in general a good rule of thumb for you: ‘Before you speak, two digits off the peak.'”

And when Romney told college students to borrow money from their parents to start a business, his handlers said, “Great going with the pep talk, Governor. But next time keep in mind that most parents don’t have a lot of spare cash around. Here’s a mnemonic for you: ‘Parents pay-rents.’ Got that?”

And when Romney said that he has friends who own NASCAR teams, his handlers said to him, “Good for you for bonding with the NASCAR crowd, but most people are there to root for a team, not because they own one. Here’s a phrase that might help: ‘Owners are boners. Employees, puhlease.'”

So why doesn’t it sink in? Mitt’s smart. And I don’t think he’s incapable of empathy. So, I have an hypothesis, which I offer as a way to make sense of his repeated and, frankly, weird stumbles.

Remember when in 5th grade you picked a foreign country to write a report on? Let’s say it was China. You read some age-appropriate books. You drew some pictures. You explained, as best as your 10-year-old brain allowed, some of China’s history, a bit about their language — pictograms are cool! — and then perhaps you wrote about what life is like in China for a child your age. And, if you were very lucky, you got a pen-pal in China. Sure, after a few exchanges, the correspondence ended. But it was pretty thrilling while it lasted.

And if you were a typical ten year old, you made a bunch of dumb mistakes that now you laugh about. You asked your pen-pal what his favorite baseball team is, or what she got for Christmas. From this you learned that life in China is more different from yours than you had imagined. It’s a crucial lesson.

My hypothesis is that Mitt has trouble with this lesson: Romney is unable to cognitively understand the situation of others. He can talk so casually about firing people — and he could “restructure” a distressed company so cooly — not because he doesn’t care about workers but because he doesn’t intellectually grasp that most people don’t have the financial backup that he has always had. For the same reason, he genuinely thinks that during his time in Paris as a missionary he struggled the way ordinary folks do. I think it’s the same lack of cognitive imagination that leads him to see others as feeling entitled, when his whole life seems to be based on his own sense of entitlement. It’s a cognitive problem, not an emotional one.

Hey, it’s a theory. But if it’s wrong, as it’s like to be, then we need another hypothesis to explain his pattern of statements that show a fundamental misunderstanding of how life looks to the rest of us.


September 23, 2012

A happy day

I don’t often blog about purely personal events, but our daughter Leah is getting married this morning to her friend Matt.



The next day: It was a wonderful wedding, joining two wonderful, loving people. We’re all very, very happy.


September 18, 2012

President Obama on Letterman: A view from the audience

[Note: posted in haste with not enough workable wifi to check name spellings, etc.]

I got to be part of the studio audience watching the David Letterman show tonight, on which the sole guest was President Obama. (I have a friend who works there.) It was sort of awesome. I took notes, but since I was scribbling in the dark, and you can watch the show tonight, I’m not going to post about the actual content.

I’ve sat in a number of studio audiences in my life, including at The Daily Show a few years ago, so the following will sound especially stupid, but: The Late Show with David Letterman is an impressive operation. These folks are professionals. Lots and lots of professionals.

One reason I was particularly impressed with The Late Show: The CBS Orchestra (aka the Paul Shaffer band) is spectacularly good. They played a couple of songs before the show started, and then during the breaks. Great arrangements, stellar soloists, tight as the last pistachio.

I got there at 2pm for a 4:30 taping. Even that early, the police were putting up crowd-control barricades two blocks in every direction. They told me that at 3pm they’d be shutting the place down. In front of the Ed Sullivan Theater there were lots of obvious Secret Service folks with their black suits, curly ear pieces, and their damn equitable politeness. Also a cop with a black labrador trained to sniff out evil doers.

Having cleared the metal detector — backpacks were temporarily confiscated — we waited in the lobby in neat lines. Eventually a personable page gave us a stern lecture couched in jokes and lightness. She had us practice laughing by telling us “the single funniest Late Show punchline: Donald Trump’s hair.” The lobby exploded in raucous laughter and applause. Even though I was directly in front of the cheerleading page, I could not bring myself to do more than smile; I have an unhelpful anti-authoritarian streak.

She gave us the rest of the rundown: No woo-woo’s, no boos, no calling out. No food or drink. No sunglasses because they reflect light. No photos or recordings. Turn off your phones. Infractions will result in ejection. Now let’s practice that laugh again!

We went inside. I had a great seat in the front row of the balcony. (You can see me, I’m told, when they pan across the audience when the President arrived.) The theater is surprisingly small. It holds about 420 people, but the audience sections are shallow. The cityscapes that are the stage background are more three dimensional and charming than they appear on TV. We watched the band rehearsing the tricky parts while the floor received a last-minute buffing. The warm-up comedian told us pretty good jokes about regional accents, but not good enough to get me to give in, follow instructions, and laugh. They showed us a couple of videos: Biff Henderson on the road, and a charming “orientation film” narrated by Alec Baldwin. Then the warm-up guy had us practice our roar for when Dave appeared.

A couple of knockout numbers from the band. Two minutes to go and Dave literally runs in without a jacket, asks how the Secret Service guys were, and then gives us a hint for how to enliven a party: Drop a mic on the floor repeatedly while holding its wire. He cracks a joke about getting rid of the cockroaches that way. He goes back stage and about one minute later, he’s out on stage doing his monologue, which begins with a reference to cockroaches that no one outside of the live audience will understand.

The monologue was funny. I’m actually laughing now. And clapping, as they’ve encouraged. I’ve oftent wondered when watching at home: when did clapping replace laughing? How did that happen?

As they’re going to the first commercial, they run a teaser video showing Pres. Obama coming out on stage. I have no idea when they filmed it. I think we’ve been sitting in the theater longer than the President has been in the theater. Was it from the last time Obama was a guest? Life’s mysteries. (I have similar concerns about how they do the cutaways in reality shows in which contestants reflect on their nervousness about the outcome of a judgment that is about to be delivered. Sometimes they have different facial hair. Wormhole?)

It was a typical Letterman interview of this sort: some silliness, some seriousness, some seriousness disguised as silliness. I thought Letterman did a great job. As for Obama, I am ever impressed with his poise, humor and dignity. I came in a fan and left an even bigger one. (Wow, that sentence can be read in some incongruous ways! Is it a vase or two faces? I’m going to leave it as is.)

From a political point of view, I was particular impressed with President Obama’s handling of the 47% question. He talked about the need for a president to represent all the people, a response that was positive about the presidency while purposefully casting a high contrast light on Romney’s comments. Obama also talked about all that we as Americans have in common. Great.

During the breaks, President Obama chatted with Dave. Very relaxed. They made each other laugh. Obama would also listen to the band, bopping his head in time. When the band struck up “Baby, I’m So in Love With You” (ok, so that’s the lyric, not the title, but it’s the song he sang a little of a few months ago), he smiled at Felicia Cohen, the guitarist who was also doing the vocals (superbly, I might add).

The last segment was about the Libyan riots that have spread across the Middle East. Not a lot of jokes.

Then it was over. The President shook the hand of just about every worker, from the executive producer to each of the camera people. He posed for a picture with Biff Henderson. Sid McGinnis was playing an insane riff and with his pick hand gave the President a “howdy” finger point.

Now I’m on the Amtrak train coming home.

A TV show inevitably is a weirdly artificial environment. It’s thus hard to learn much about someone by watching how s/he behaves on it. So I offer the following tentatively.

We know that Obama is smart and articulate. We know that he accords everyone dignity. We know he has a sense of humor. Watching him for 50 minutes on stage, I was struck by two things. First, there were no sycophants rushing up to him during the breaks, encouraging him or whispering clever rejoinders in his ear. It was him and Dave.

Second, there was no visible difference in how he behaved or who he was when he was on or off camera. He and Dave continued to talk. Of course he wasn’t facing the cameras during the breaks, and I presume he was talking more informally. But, my impression was that this was the same centered person throughout.

Of course, I am a fanboy.


September 16, 2012

[2b2k] Decisions and character

I just read Michael Lewis’ tag-along look at President Obama. It shows aspects of Obama not readily on display. But mainly it’s about being the President as Decider.

The article makes it clear to me that the presidency is not a possible job. No one cannot be adequately prepared to deal with the range of issues the president faces, most of which have significant effects on very real people. The president therefore needs processes that enable him (so far it’s been hims, kids) to make good decisions, the personality that will let him embrace those processes, and the character to continue making decisions while fully appreciating the consequences of his actions.

Mothers, don’t let you kids grow up to be presidents. Holy cow.


Elizabeth Warren FTW!

At last Elizabeth Warren, the Warrior of the Middle Class, has opened up a 6-point lead on the Truck Drivin’ Triangulator Scott Brown. That lead increases if you look only at registered voters.

We are thus one poll closer to the dream Clinton-Warren 2016 ticket.


September 15, 2012

[2b2k] Truth as meta

I’m engaged in a multi-day conversation at The Well, led by Jon Lebkowskyjoin in! — about Too Big to Know, and found myself summing up the book as follows:

Traditional knowledge seemed like true content handed to us by competent experts. Networked knowledge seems like the work of humans who never quite get anything right.

Now, I’m of course not completely satisfied with that answer; if I were, I would have written a tweet instead of a book. But it leads to one of my many fears about this new knowledge ecosystem, which nevertheless holds such tremendous promise.

I think the Net only makes us smarter if we come to understand that truth is a complex of metadata — if I may put it in the least helpful way possible. In fact, you could substitute “authority” or “truth” in that sentence and have a less contentious way of putting it, and we can postpone the debate about whether there is really much of a difference between the two terms. Anyway, the simple point I’m failing to make is that the paper world tends toward establishing truths. Once established, they can be accepted without regard for the process by which they were established. Of course scholars and experts in the field will always be willing to challenge those processes, but our knowledge strategy has been to build upon a bedrock of established truths without having to re-establish each of them.

It is no accident that this mirrors the strengths and limitations of publishing truths on paper. Once published, paper-based works are literally independent of their sources. This independence enables truths to be distributed around the world, but at a cost. One of Plato’s problems with paper as opposed to dialogue was in fact that you can’t ask the paper any questions. Not only are we cut off from the processes that led to that truth, the paper seemingly inevitably takes on its own authority: If it made it through the editorial filters that the finitude of paper and bookshelves necessitate, then it must have some value.

It’s different on the Net. All it takes is a link to enable readers to see the processes — the drafts, the revisions, the arguments — that led to the page they’re reading. Authorial pride may get in the way of showing these processes, but increasingly the signal is flipping, so that not showing your work is taken as a sign of pretension, arrogance, or even fear, while showing the drafts and disagreements signals confidence and a commitment to truth…

…because truth on the Net needs to be more than the totality of statements that are true. For us to advance as a culture, we need to understand the human involvement in truth. We need to have as a guiding assumption that truth is something we argue about, that it is always seen from a particular historical and cultural position, that is never simply the statement that asserts something true.

And the Net is great at that. Links can lead us back to the processes that led to the assertions on the page, and links can lead us out into a world that interprets and challenges the assertions. Our overall experience of the Web as chaotic informs us that there are lots of different ideas, and, no, they don’t all fit together harmoniously.

If we stick with our old habits on the Net, then not only do we fail to advance, we regress. There are more untruths to learn on the Net than there ever were in the paper world. If we don’t grow into the assumption that truth always has a meta context, we will believe more flat-footed lies.

Now, I’m optimistic about this. I think some of these lessons are learned simply by being on the Web: Ideas are hyperlinked. The world is in disagreement. But these lessons are not inevitable, or at least they can be suppressed by our old instincts and by our intellectual laziness (or call it efficiency if you prefer): Just as when we see a bright shiny object, our eyes twitch toward it, when we see a bright rectangle of text and graphics, our brains twitch toward giving it credence. That was a much more useful (lazy/efficient) reflex in the paper days when publication entailed filtering. It is a habit that leads us away from truth in the Net age.

And the evidence is not entirely encouraging. One study — which I cannot find, thus causing my entire argument here to do the Happy Irony Dance— found that only a tiny percentage of students who consult Wikipedia ever look at the “talk” or “discussion” pages where Wikipedia’s assertions are argued. That’s in part a failure of education and a failure by Wikipedia to explain itself. It is in part a reflection of the fact that people generally come to an encyclopedia to get answers, not to read back-and-forth arguments. But apparently (see the Irony Dance above) only a small percentage of Wikipedia users even know what the Talk pages are.

One of the definitions of “fundamentalism” of any kind is that it is the assumption that texts speak for themselves, without interpretation or inquiry. Fundamentalism becomes much more dangerous when the seeker of belief has a near infinity of scriptures from which to choose. I believe the Net is making us far smarter, but on cloudy days I wonder.


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