Joho the BlogMay 2013 - Joho the Blog

May 31, 2013

An Internet cathedral?

It took six centuries to complete the incredible Duomo in Milan. In the past fifteen years, we’ve built some amazing things on the Net by using the Net’s ability to scale laterally: Lots of people collaborating for a short period of time.

08372 - Milan - Duomo
(cc) xiquinho @ flickr.com

So, imagine we set out to do something with a longer time frame. What could we build together if we gave ourselves say 100 years?

I’ve posed this at Reddit.

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May 30, 2013

[2b2k] Can business intelligence get intelligent enough?

Greg Silverman [twitter:concentricabm], the CEO of Concentric, has a good post at CMS Wire about the democratization of market analysis. He makes what seems to me to be a true and important point: market researchers now have the tools to enable them to slice, dice, deconstruct, and otherly-construct data without having to rely upon centralized (and expensive) analytics firms. This, says Greg, changes not only the economics of research, but also the nature of the results:

The marketers’ relationships with their analytics providers are currently strained as a service-based, methodologically undisclosed and one-off delivery of insights. These providers and methods are pitted against a new generation of managers and executives who are “data natives” —professionals who rose to the top by having full control of their answering techniques, who like to be empowered and in charge of their own destinies, and who understand the world as a continuous, adaptive place that may have constantly changing answers. This new generation of leaders likes to identify tradeoffs and understand the “grayness” of insight rather than the clarity being marketed by the service providers.

He goes on to make an important point about the perils of optimization, which is what attracted the attention of Eric Bonabeau [twitter:bonabeau], whose tweet pointed me at the post.

The article’s first point, though, is interesting from the point of view of the networking of knowledge, because it’s not an example of the networking of knowledge. This new generation of market researchers are not relying on experts from the Central Authority, they are not looking for simple answers, and they’re comfortable with ambiguity, all of which are characteristics of networked knowledge. But, at least according to Greg’s post, they are not engaging with one another across company boundaries, sharing data, models, and insights. I’m going to guess that Greg would agree that there’s more of that going on than before. But not enough.

If the competitive interests of businesses are going to keep their researchers from sharing ideas and information in vigorous conversations with their peers and others, then businesses simply won’t be as smart as they could be. Openness optimizes knowledge system-wide, but by definition it doesn’t concentrate knowledge in the hands of a few. And this may form an inherent limit on how smart businesses can become.

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May 28, 2013

Dear Internet: Please help me kill this bush

This fall I followed the Internet’s instructions on how to cut back the giant shrub of ugliness that’s been occupying the strip that divides our front yard from our neighbor’s. Alas, the Internet lied, and the bush has not sprouted new leaves where I cut it back past its thin margin of green. Oops.

nullsideways view of shrub

That’s ok because I hate that [email protected]#[email protected] shrub and would be happy to be rid of it. Unfortunately, as you can see, it consists of sticks that have buried their gnarled fingers deep into the earth.

shrub full on

Dear Internet, how do I get rid of the thing so that I can plant something more humble and subservient?

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May 26, 2013

[2b2k] Is big data degrading the integrity of science?

Amanda Alvarez has a provocative post at GigaOm:

There’s an epidemic going on in science: experiments that no one can reproduce, studies that have to be retracted, and the emergence of a lurking data reliability iceberg. The hunger for ever more novel and high-impact results that could lead to that coveted paper in a top-tier journal like Nature or Science is not dissimilar to the clickbait headlines and obsession with pageviews we see in modern journalism.

The article’s title points especially to “dodgy data,” and the item in this list that’s by far the most interesting to me is the “data reliability iceberg,” and its tie to the rise of Big Data. Amanda writes:

…unlike in science…, in big data accuracy is not as much of an issue. As my colleague Derrick Harris points out, for big data scientists the abilty to churn through huge amounts of data very quickly is actually more important than complete accuracy. One reason for this is that they’re not dealing with, say, life-saving drug treatments, but with things like targeted advertising, where you don’t have to be 100 percent accurate. Big data scientists would rather be pointed in the right general direction faster — and course-correct as they go – than have to wait to be pointed in the exact right direction. This kind of error-tolerance has insidiously crept into science, too.

But, the rest of the article contains no evidence that the last sentence’s claim is true because of the rise of Big Data. In fact, even if we accept that science is facing a crisis of reliability, the article doesn’t pin this on an “iceberg” of bad data. Rather, it seems to be a melange of bad data, faulty software, unreliable equipment, poor methodology, undue haste, and o’erweening ambition.

The last part of the article draws some of the heat out of the initial paragraphs. For example: “Some see the phenomenon not as an epidemic but as a rash, a sign that the research ecosystem is getting healthier and more transparent.” It makes the headline and the first part seem a bit overstated — not unusual for a blog post (not that I would ever do such a thing!) but at best ironic given this post’s topic.

I remain interested in Amanda’s hypothesis. Is science getting sloppier with data?

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May 25, 2013

Upstream Colors

[SPOILERS COMING] A few paragraphs down I’m going to talk explicitly about the theme. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should stop there; I’ve marked it with a spoiler alert. Until then, there are no spoilers. But, this is a movie you should see with no expectations other than that it isn’t your ordinary film. So, my advice is to stop here.

 

 

 

I watched Upstream Colors last night, the second movie by Shane Carruth, who gave us Primer in 2004, a time-travel movie that has spawned analyses that make Memento look like Babar’s Vacation.

Upstream Colors is mysterious and difficult to fathom, but not because it is as intricately plotted as Primer. With Primer, you have to notice that a character’s middle button is undone in one scene but is buttoned in another. (I haven’t seen Primer in a while, so I’ve made up that example.) With Upstream Colors you can let yourself relax a bit more. The salient details are flagged, generally. But how they go together, especially after the first third (i.e., after the pigs are introduced), will keep you focused.

The theme is as difficult as the plot. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone recognizing what the theme is — what the movie is actually about — while watching it. Still, you watch it enthralled. And that makes this a truly masterful movie. It is so beautifully constructed in images, sounds, and music (Carruth wrote the awesome score) that it carries you along. You are given enough narrative clues to keep you interested in what’s coming next, and you care about the characters. But Carruth has invented his own rhetoric for this movie, a correspondence of gestures and sounds that conveys shared meanings.

I had to read some analyses on the Web before the penny dropped. And even then there’s plenty left to ponder.

There are, in fact, at least two pennies. One concerns the narrative thread, along the lines of “What’s up with the pigs?” About this I shall say no more, but will instead recommend Daniel D’Addario’s article in Salon, which I liked up until the last couple of paragraphs…precisely where he goes from narrative to theme.

The second penny isexpressed eloquently by Carruth himself in a terrific interview by Charlie Jane Anders. And a second interview by her about the ending is equally important. In it, Carruth explains why the ending is subversive of narratives, but it’s also clear that the theme itself is even more deeply subversive.

[SPOILER ALERT: ]

This movie is about people who think they are controlling their lives but in fact are being controlled by forces outside of themselves, at least according to Carruth. But control is expressed in the movie as being the author of one’s own narrative. These characters are certainly not in charge of the meta narrative about what’s shaping their story. The fact that it’s pigs ‘n’ worms (and, yes, orchids) is just one more splash of cold water: the narrative the characters tell themselves when they take back control couldn’t be less ennobling. Further, one can read the ending as showing the characters becoming the next set of enablers of the cycle.

I’m not at all sure that that’s what Carruth has in mind. His interview suggests that he instead sees the pigs and worms simply as part of nature, and nature doesn’t care about what we find pleasant or gross. The transcendence at the end is not about taking back control of one’s narrative but about accepting that the stories we tell ourselves are not stories that we give ourselves. That’s far better expressed through pigs in shit than bunnies in clover.

And yet this is a movie with a highly stylized and artificial language of image, sound, and music. It is a story we have been given by a creator who, like The Sampler (the guy recording sounds), is invisible to the characters but who is shaping so much of what they experience —the shepherd of the forces controlling the characters’ experience. I can’t avoid assuming that Carruth knows that he himself is The Sampler and we are his protagonists. During the movie and then afterwards, we — like his characters — are going to think we’re taking back control of the story, piecing together what happened. We assume there must be a story, and even that it has to be about us, but suppose it’s not. Suppose there’s nothing but pigs and worms. Suppose the story is nothing but the beautiful rhetoric of an author we cannot see — an author himself embedded in a cycle he did not create.

By the way, this is a great movie — although it does bother me that I had to read about it to see why.

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May 24, 2013

Japanese art painted with Excel

According to PSFK, which bases the report on an article in the Japaense-language PC Online, for the past ten years Tatsuo Horiuchi has been drawing traditional Japanese prints using Excel spreadsheets.

Here’s a screen capture of what Horiuchi’s work looks like in process:

Why does he do this? Because Excel comes bundled for free with the computers he uses. Yeah, well, so does HTML5 Canvas but that doesn’t mean I’d want to create, say, the Mona Lisa in Javascript.

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May 20, 2013

The New Yorker Caption Contest is making me an embittered, broken man

My offering has once again been passed over by the cruel gods that rule the New Yorker Caption contest.

The cartoon shows Noah’s ark filled with giraffes. Noah is talking to what seems to be a young woman. (I describe it because I can’t find a unique url for it.) The selected entries are:

  1. “I wouldn’t say ‘favorite’ animal.”

  2. “Mistakes were made.”

  3. “I have trouble saying no.”

Here’s my rejected caption:

“That’s ok. Everyone has trouble with Excel at first.”

Ok, it’s not so great. But head to head against number 2 above, no?

Someday, Caption Contest, someday…!

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[misc] The loneliness of the long distance ISBN

NOTE on May 23: OCLC has posted corrected numbers. I’ve corrected them in the post below; the changes are mainly fractional. So you can ignore the note immediately below.

NOTE a couple of hours later: OCLC has discovered a problem with the analysis. So please ignore the following post until further notice. Apologies from the management.

Ever since the 1960s, publishers have used ISBN numbers as identifiers of editions of books. Since the world needs unique ways to refer to unique books, you would think that ISBN would be a splendid solution. Sometimes and in some instances it is. But there are problems, highlighted in the latest analysis run by OCLC on its database of almost 300 million records.

Number of ISBNs

Percentage of the records

0

77.71%

2

18.77%

1

1.25%

4

1.44%

3

0.21%

6

0.14%

8

0.04%

5

0.02%

10

0.02%

12

0.01%

So, 78% of the OCLC’s humungous collection of books records have no ISBN, and only 1.6% have the single ISBN that God intended.

As Roy Tennant [twitter: royTennant] of OCLC points out (and thanks to Roy for providing these numbers), many works in this collection of records pre-date the 1960s. Even so, the books with multiple ISBNs reflect the weakness of ISBNs as unique identifiers. ISBNs are essentially SKUs to identify a product. The assigning of ISBNs is left up to publishers, and they assign a new one whenever they need to track a book as an inventory item. This does not always match how the public thinks about books. When you want to refer to, say, Moby-Dick, you probably aren’t distinguishing between one with illustrations, a large-print edition, and one with an introduction by the Deadliest Catch guys. But publishers need to make those distinctions, and that’s who ISBN is intended to serve.

This reflects the more general problem that books are complex objects, and we don’t have settled ways of sorting out all the varieties allowed within the concept of the “same book.” Same book? I doubt it!

Still, these numbers from OCLC exhibit more confusion within the ISBN number space than I’d expected.

MINUTES LATER: Folks on a mailing list are wondering if the very high percentage of records with two ISBNs is due to the introduction of 13-digit ISBNs to supplement the initial 10-digit ones.

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May 17, 2013

Lobby for FaceBook, Yahoo, NewsCorp and Elsevier opposes the White House Open Access order, among others

Peter Suber points out that FaceBook, Yahoo, Elsevier and Yahoo have joined the NetChoice.org lobby that has issued a clarion call against open access that blurs the line between lies and gibberish. Peter blows the statements apart, leaving nothing but clean air and a whiff of ozone.

NetChoice.org is publicizing its monthly “iAWFUL” (Internet advocates watchlist for ugly laws) list of policies that it doesn’t like. The list has little to do with advocating for the Internet, and everything to do with supporting the interests of Internet businesses (“committed to tearing down barriers to e-commerce”). For example, this month’s iAWFUL list includes data breach notification bills and a CT bill that “would force publishers to sell digital books at ‘reasonable” prices to state libraries.” That’s in addition to opposing actions (including the recent epochal White House Memorandum) that support public access to research — often research that the public has paid for. But they have it all bollixed up.

What makes it more distressing, then, is that reputable journals, including Computerworld, CIO and PC World, are running NetChoice’s iAWFUL PR puffery.

Thankfully, Peter Suber is on the case.

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May 15, 2013

[meshcon] Ryan Carson of Treehouse

Ryan Carson [twitter:RyanCarson] of Treehouse at the Mesh Conference is keynoting the Mesh Conference. He begins his introduction of himself by saying he is a father, which I appreciate. Treehouse is an “online education company that teaches technology. We hope we can remove the need to go to university to do technology.”

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.

Treehouse “treasures personal time.” They work a 4-day week, 8 hours a day, although they pay for a full 40-hour week. He asks how many people in the audience work for themselves or run their own company; half the people raise their hands. “We have a fundamental belief that people can work smarter, and thus faster…We use a lot of tools that decrease drag.” E.g., they have an internal version of Reddit called “Convoy.” It keeps conversation out of email. “We ask people to never put anything in email that isn’t actionable.” A 4 day week also makes recruiting easy.

“As a father, I realize I’m going to die, sooner rather than later. If I work four days a week, I can send 50% more of my life with my wife and kids.”

Q: Why not a 3 day week?

A: It’s a flag to say “We believe personal time is important.” We’ll do whatever we have to. I’ve told people not to send email over the weekend because it makes work for others.

Q: How about flex time instead?

A: We have tried that, and we let people work from home. “People are smart and motivated and want to succeed. We presume that about people.” We’re demanding, and we’ll fire people if they don’t perform. But you have to institute practices, and not just say that you believe in personal time.

Q: Do you have investors? How do they respond?

A: We have $12M in investment. But we didn’t raise money until after we were profitable. I used my experience running 3 prior companies to give investors confidence. And no one asked about the 4 day week. It doesn’t seem to matter to them. My prior company was an events company and it got bought by a company that worked 5 days a week, and it was messy. I think our team there is now working 5 days.

Q: How do you provide 7 day a week support?

A: Our support team time shifts.

Q: How do you control email so that it’s only actionable?

A: It’s a policy. Also, we use Boomerang which lets us schedule when email is sent.

Now Ryan talks about the tools they use to facilitate a distributed team: about 30 people in Orlando, 8 in Portland, and the rest are distributed in the US and UK. “We don’t have a headquarters.” We are an Internet company. We use Convoy: part water cooler, part news distribution. Notes from meetings go there. It took a dev about a day to create Convoy.

We also use Campfire, a chat program. And Trello for task management. And Google Hangouts. (He notes that you have to be wired, not wifi, and have good gear, for Hangouts to work well.)

Q: Do you have to work over the weekend when there’s a hard deadline? And do you put more of an emphasis on planning?

A: Yes, we sometimes have worked over the weekend. And we’ve sometimes had a problem with people working too much. I think some people work without telling us, especially developers and designers. But if they have to work, their managers have failed. And it does mean we have to plan carefully.

Q: What are your annual meetups like?

A: It’s a full week. No agenda, no working. Pure get drunk, have fun. People work much harder if they like each other and believe in each other.

Now on education. By 2020, there will be 1,000,000 jobs in tech than students. Nine out of ten high schools don’t even offer computer programming classes. [Really? Apparently so. Wow.] Treehouse tries to address this, along with Udacity, CodeAcademy, Code School. In a video, Ryan says that Treehouse will cost you about $300 for an entire course of tech education, making you ready to enter the workforce. “The education system is a racket. Universities have milked us dry for ten years.” 40% of jobs in STEM are in computer science, but only 2% of STEM students are studying it. “In 41 out of 50 states coding classes don’t count toward high school graduation math or science requirements.” “In the future, most students won’t get a four year degree, and I think that’s a good thing. We are moving toward a trade school model.”

Q: Many companies use college degrees as a filter. How do you filter?

A: In 5 yrs there won’t be enough graduates for you to hire anyone because Google and FB will pay them $500,000/year. At Treehouse we apply points. You can see someone’s skills.

Q: What will people miss out on if they don’t go to college?

A: People will miss out on the social aspect, but people can’t afford to go into debt for that. College as the next step is a new idea in the past 15 years. [Really?] You’ll have free liberal arts education available through free online courses. You’ll pay for trade school training. “We’ll just have to have faith that people can be responsible adults without going to university.”

Q: How do you help people who complete your courses find job?

A: We’re rolling out an entire department for this. As you learn on Treehouse, you get points and start to establish your rank. Employers will be able to search our database saying, e.g., “I want someone with over 1,000 points in CSS, 800 points in Javascript, and 500 points in business.”

Q: How are you going to mesh these ideas into traditional education?

A: Sub-par universities will die. Education will be completely different in 10 years. We don’t know what it will be.

Ryan says that he’s not doing this for the money. “People who need education can’t afford it.”

[Judy Lee tweeted that Ryan should have asked us how many in the audience have a university degree, and how many of us regret it. Nice.]

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