Joho the BlogDecember 2013 - Joho the Blog

December 30, 2013

The family album — making good on a resolution

I’ve been spending TV time taking digital photographs of every page of our family photo albums. Sure, it’d be better to digitize each one individually, but it turns out that what I’m doing is way better than never getting around to doing it right.

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December 28, 2013

[2b2k] From thinkers to memes

The history of Western philosophy usually has a presumed shape: there’s a known series of Great Men (yup, men) who in conversation with their predecessors came up with a coherent set of ideas. You can list them in chronological order, and cluster them into schools of thought with their own internal coherence: the neo-Platonists, the Idealists, etc. Sometimes, the schools and not the philosophers are the primary objects in the sequence, but the topology is basically the same. There are the Big Ideas and the lesser excursions, the major figures and the supporting players.

Of course the details of the canon are always in dispute in every way: who is included, who is major, who belongs in which schools, who influenced whom. A great deal of scholarly work is given over to just such arguments. But there is some truth to this structure itself: philosophers traditionally have been shaped by their tradition, and some have had more influence than others. There are also elements of a feedback loop here: you need to choose which philosophers you’ll teach in philosophy courses, so you you act responsibly by first focusing on the majors, and by so doing you confirm for the next generation that the ones you’ve chosen are the majors.

But I wonder if in one or two hundred years philosophers (by which I mean the PT-3000 line of Cogbots™) will mark our era as the end of the line — the end of the linear sequence of philosophers. Rather than a sequence of recognized philosophers in conversation with their past and with one another, we now have a network of ideas being passed around, degraded by noise and enhanced by pluralistic appropriation, but without owners — at least without owners who can hold onto their ideas long enough to be identified with them in some stable form. This happens not simply because networks are chatty. It happens not simply because the transmission of ideas on the Internet occurs through a p2p handoff in which each of the p’s re-expresses the idea. It happens also because the discussion is no longer confined to a handful of extensively trained experts with strict ideas about what is proper in such discussions, and who share a nano-culture that supersedes the values and norms of their broader local cultures.

If philosophy survives as anything more than the history of thought, perhaps we will not be able to outline its grand movements by pointing to a handful of thinkers but will point to the webs through which ideas passed, or, more exactly, the ideas around which webs are formed. Because no idea passes through the Web unchanged, it will be impossible to pretend that there are “ideas-in-themselves” — nothing like, say, Idealism which has a core definition albeit with a history of significant variations. There is no idea that is not incarnate, and no incarnation that is not itself a web of variations in conversation with itself.

I would spell this out for you far more precisely, but I don’t know what I’m talking about, beyond an intuition that the tracks end at the trampled field in which we now live.

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December 27, 2013

A gift of Schiff

I know it’s the day after the day after Christmas, but I’m still going to give you a gift. A gift of Schiff.

I heard Andras Schiff on the radio a couple of days ago and it reminded me how much I’ve enjoyed his discussions of Beethoven’s piano sonatas before he’s performed them. He plays with passion but has an analytic understanding of the compositions. And, no, I’m not sure why I used “but” as the conjunction in that sentence.

Anyway, you can download the lectures here, thanks to The Guardian. (Thank you, The Guardian!)

Schiff said on the radio the other day that as he gets older, his understanding increases but his technical ability decreases. It makes me hope that we get some software that lets a master like him manipulate musical notation to produce a digital version of the performance that he would have liked to be able to give. Or will it turn out that there are so many variables for how you strike a note and string them together that such software is like wishing that Meryl Streep could instruct a digitizal avatar to act as well as she does?

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December 24, 2013

Schema.org…now for datasets!

I had a chance to talk with Dan Brickley today, a semanticizer of the Web whom I greatly admire. He’s often referred to as a co-creator of FOAF, but these days he’s at Google working on Schema.org. He pointed me to the work Schema has been doing with online datasets, which I hadn’t been aware of. Very interesting.

Schema.org, as you probably know, provides a set of terms you can hide inside the HTML of your page that annotate what the visible contents are about. The major search engines — Google, Bing, Yahoo, Yandex — notice this markup and use it to provide more precise search results, and also to display results in ways that present the information more usefully. For example, if a recipe on a page is marked up with Schema.org terms, the search engine can identify the list of ingredients and let you search on them (“Please find all recipes that use butter but not garlic”) and display them in a more readable away. And of course it’s not just the search engines that can do this; any app that is looking at the HTML of a page can also read the Schema markup. There are Schema.org schemas for an ever-expanding list of types of information…and now datasets.

If you go to Schema.org/Dataset and scroll to the bottom where it says “Properties from Dataset,” you’ll see the terms you can insert into a page that talk specifically about the dataset referenced. It’s quite simple at this point, which is an advantage of Schema.org overall. But you can see some of the power of even this minimal set of terms over at Google’s experimental Schema Labs page where there are two examples.

The first example (click on the “view” button) does a specialized Google search looking for pages that have been marked up with Schema’s Dataset terms. In the search box, try “parking,” or perhaps “military.” Clicking on a return takes you to the original page that provides access to the dataset.

The second demo lets you search for databases related to education via the work done by LRMI (Learning Resource Metadata Initiative); the LRMI work has been accepted (except for the term useRightsUrl) as part of Schema.org. Click on the “view” button and you’ll be taken to a page with a search box, and a menu that lets you search the entire Web or a curated list. Choose “entire Web” and type in a search term such as “calculus.”

This is such a nice extension of Schema.org. Schema was designed initially to let computers parse information on human-readable pages (“Aha! ‘Butter’ on this page is being used as a recipe ingredient and on that page as a movie title“), but now it can be used to enable computers to pull together human-readable lists of available datasets.

I continue to be a fan of Schema because of its simplicity and pragmatism, and, because the major search engines look for Schema markup, people have a compelling reason to add markup to their pages. Obviously Schema is far from the only metadata scheme we need, nor does it pretend to be. But for fans of loose, messy, imperfect projects that actually get stuff done, Schema is a real step forward that keeps taking more steps forward.

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December 22, 2013

The Bogotá Manhattan recipe + markup

Here’s a recipe for a Manhattan cocktail that I like. The idea of adding Kahlua came from a bartender in Philadelphia. I call it a Bogotá Manhattan because of the coffee.

You can’t tell by looking at this post that it’s marked up with Schema.org codes, unless you View Source. These codes let the search engines (and any other computer program that cares to look) recognize the meaning of the various elements. For example, the line “a splash of Kahlua” actually reads:

<span itemprop=”ingredients”>a splash of Kahlua</span>

“itemprop=ingredients” says that the visible content is an ingredient. This does not help you as a reader at all, but it means that a search engine can confidentally include this recipe when someone searches for recipes that contain Kahlua. Markup makes the Web smarter, and Schema.org is a lightweight, practical way of adding markup, with the huge incentive that the major search engines recognize Schema.

So, here goes:

Bogotá Manhattan

A variation on the classic Manhattan — a bit less bitter, and a bit more complex.

Prep Time: 3 minutes
Yield: 1 drink

Ingredients:

  • 1 shot bourbon

  • 1 shot sweet Vermouth

  • A few shakes of Angostura bitters

  • A splash of Kahlua

  • A smaller splash of grenadine or maraschino cherry juice

  • 1 maraschino cherry and/or small slice of orange as garnish. Delicious garnish.

Instructions:

Shake together with ice. Strain and serve in a martini glass, or (my preference) violate all norms by serving in a small glass with ice.

Here’s the Schema.org markup for recipes. author url

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December 19, 2013

Rights, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and Ducks

So, some guy on a TV show I never saw said some stuff I don’t agree with about homosexuality. He thinks it’s a sin akin to a whole bunch of other sex-related sins. After the affair blew up, he responded, “I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity.” In the original interview he also described his experience as “white trash” working alongside African-Americans, saying that he never saw them mistreated. I believe him. He never saw that. Ok.

I don’t much care about the details of the incident, so if you want to tell me that I’m not understanding the horribleness of what he said, I’m not going to argue with you. I really haven’t researched it. But the debate is irking me.

I am reading too many of my compatriots — and, by the way, welcome to marriage equality, New Mexico! — saying that it was ok for A&E to fire Phil Robertson (the Duck Dynasty guy in question) because the First Amendment constrains the actions only of the government. So, I assume A&E had every legal and Constitutional right to fire Robertson for what he said.

So what? The question isn’t what A&E is allowed to do and what the First Amendment forbids. The question is: What makes this country a better place in which to live? Do we want to live in a place where you can’t state your opinion without worrying that you may be fired? How much variance from the orthodoxy are we willing to permit? And, yes, I feel the same way about not buying from a local store that has a political sign in its window that you disagree with. Your Republican hardware store owner has a right to make a living!

Do we really think America is better if the many people who think homosexuality is a sin are forbidden from saying so? The ironic revenge of Don’t ask, don’t tell?

Jeez. We need some room for disagreement here!


Just to anticipate the comments: Yes, I would feel the same way if he had said, “Everyone knows the Jews own the banks.” And, yes, there are things he could say that would make him so toxic that I’d agree that the network should fire him. For example, if he had threatened violence, or had used language so inflammatory that it could lead to violence. There are lines. We’re just drawing them wrong. IMO.

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December 17, 2013

What businesses are for

Peter Cappelli has written an excellent post at HBR that falls simultaneously into the “Well, Duh” and “Needs to Be Said” bins: “It’s Not OK That Your Employees Can’t Afford to Eat.” Well, duh! It’s amazing that it even needs to be said. (Note that the Duh belongs not to Peter but to whomever needed to hear that.)

Let me put it differently. From my point of view, here are the two fundamental objectives for any business:

1. Enable your customers to lead lives that are a little bit better.

2. Enable your employees to lead good lives.

Profit is what you use to do both of those things.

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December 14, 2013

Are tags over-rated?

Jeff Atwood [twitter:codinghorror] , a founder of Stackoverflow and Discourse.org — two of my favorite sites — is on a tear about tags. Here are his two tweets that started the discussion:

I am deeply ambivalent about tags as a panacea based on my experience with them at Stack Overflow/Exchange. Example: pic.twitter.com/AA3Y1NNCV9

Here’s a detweetified version of the four-part tweet I posted in reply:

Jeff’s right that tags are not a panacea, but who said they were? They’re a tool (frequently most useful when combined with an old-fashioned taxonomy), and if a tool’s not doing the job, then drop it. Or, better, fix it. Because tags are an abstract idea that exists only in particular implementations.

After all, one could with some plausibility claim that online discussions are the most overrated concept in the social media world. But still they have value. That indicates an opportunity to build a better discussion service. … which is exactly what Jeff did by building Discourse.org.

Finally, I do think it’s important — even while trying to put tags into a less over-heated perspective [do perspectives overheat??] — to remember that when first introduced in the early 2000s, tags represented an important break with an old and long tradition that used the authority to classify as a form of power. Even if tagging isn’t always useful and isn’t as widely applicable as some of us thought it would be, tagging has done the important work of telling us that we as individuals and as a loose collective now have a share of that power in our hands. That’s no small thing.

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December 12, 2013

How to introduce a change in its user agreement

Reddit shows us how to introduce changes in a site’s user agreement. The agreement itself is admirably minimally jargony, but the discussion with the community is a model of honesty and respect.

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December 11, 2013

Americans love themselves some libraries

Here’s the summary from a new Pew Internet & American Life survey of 6,224 Americans 16 years and older:

Some 90% of Americans ages 16 and older said that the closing of their local public library would have an impact on their community, with 63% saying it would have a “major” impact. Asked about the personal impact of a public library closing, two-thirds (67%) of Americans said it would affect them and their families, including 29% who said it would have a major impact. Moreover, the vast majority of Americans ages 16 and older say that public libraries play an important role in their communities:

  • 95% of Americans ages 16 and older agree that the materials and resources available at public libraries play an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed;

  • 95% say that public libraries are important because they promote literacy and a love of reading;

  • 94% say that having a public library improves the quality of life in a community;

  • 81% say that public libraries provide many services people would have a hard time finding elsewhere.

I find it encouraging that while only 54% of Americans have used a public library in the past 12 months, 95% think libraries play an important social role. The half of Americans who don’t use public libraries still see the importance of maintaining them. The Pew report confirms that “Libraries are also particularly valued by those who are unemployed, retired, or searching for a job, as well as those living with a disability and internet users who lack home internet access.”

The full report is available online for free because Pew.

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