Joho the Blog » too big to know

August 10, 2015

[2b2k] Sharing the credit when knowledge gets big

The Wall Street Journal has run an article by Robert Lee Hotz that gently ridicules scientists for including thousands of people as co-authors of some scientific publications. Sure, a list of 2,000 co-authors is risible. But the article misses some of the reasons why it’s not.

As Robert Lee points out, “experiments have gotten more complicated.” But not just by a little. How many people did it take to find the Higgs Boson particle? In fact, as Michael Nielsen (author of the excellent Reinventing Discovery) says, how many people does it take to know that it’s been found? That knowledge depends on deep knowledge in multiple fields, spread across many institutions and countries.

In 2012 I liveblogged a fantastic talk by Peter Galison on this topic. He pointed to an additional reason: it used to be that engineers were looked upon as mere technicians, an attitude mirrored in The Big Bang (the comedy show, not the creation of the universe—so easy to get those two confused!). Over time, the role of engineers has been increasingly appreciated. They are now often listed as co-authors.

In an age in which knowledge quite visibly is too big to be known by individuals, sharing credit widely more accurate reflects its structure.

In fact, it becomes an interesting challenge to figure out how to structure metadata about co-authors so that it captures more than name and institution and does so in ways that make it interoperable. This is something that my friend Amy Brand has been working on. Amy, recently named head of the MIT University Press is going to be a Berkman Fellow this year, so I hope this topic will be a subject of discussion at the Center.

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August 2, 2015

[2b2k][liveblog] Wayne Wiegand: Libraries beyond information

Wayne Wiegand is giving the lunchtime talk at the Library History Seminar XIII at Simmons College. He’s talking about his new book Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library.

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.

He introduces himself as a humanist, which brings with it a curiosity about what it means to be a human in the world. He is flawed, born into a flawed culture. He exercises his curiosity in the field of library history. [He’s also the author of the best biography of Melvil Dewey.]

People love libraries, he says, citing the Pew Internet 2013 survey that showed that almost all institutions except libraries and first responders have fallen in public esteem. His new book traces the history of the public library by listening to people who have used them since the middle of the 19th century, a bottom-up perspective. He did much of his research by searching newspaper archives, finding letters to the editors as well as articles. =People love their libraries for (1) the info they make accessible, (2) the public space, and (3) the stories they circulate that make sense of their world.

Thomas Edison spent as much time as possible in the library. The Wright Brothers came upon an ornithology book that kindled their interest in flight. HS Truman cited the library as influential. Lilly Tomlin, too. Bill Clinton, too, especially loving books about native Americans. Barack Obama, too. “The first place I wanted to be was a library,” he said when he returned from overseas. He was especially interested in Kenya, the home of his father.

For most of its history, library info science discourse has focused on what was “useful knowledge” in the 19th century, “best books” in the 20th century, or what we now call “information.” Because people don’t have to use libraries (unlike, say, courts) users have greatly influenced the shape of libraries.

“To demonstrate library as place, let me introduce you to Ricky,” he says as he starts a video. She is an adult student who does her homework in the library. When she was broke, it was a warm place where she could apply for jobs.” She has difficulty working through her emotions to express how much the library means to her.

Wayne reads a librarian’s account of the very young MLK’s regular attendance at his public library. James Levine learned to play piano there. In 1969 the Gary Indiana held a talent conference; the Jackson brothers didn’t win, but Michael became a local favorite. [Who won???] In another library, a homeless man–Mr. Conrad– came in and set up a chess board. People listened and learned from him.

“To categorize these activities as information gathering fails to appreciate the richness” of the meaning of the library for these places.

Wayne plays another video. Maria is 95 years old. She started using the library when was 12 or 13 after her family had immigrated from Russia. “That library was everything to me.” Her family could not afford to buy books “and there were some many other servicces, it was library library library all the time.” “I have seen many ugly things. You can’t live all the time with the bad.” The library was something beautiful.

Pete Seeger remembered all his life stories he read in the library.

The young Ronald Reagan read a popular Christian novel, declared himself saved, and had himself baptized. He went to his public library twice a week, mainly reading adventure stories.

Oprah Winfrey’s library taught her that there was a better world and that she could be a part of it.

Sonia Sotamayor buried herself in reading in the public library after her father died when she was nine. Nancy Drew was formative: paying attention, finding clues, reaching logical conclusions.

Wayne plays a video of Danny, a young man who learned about music from CDs in the library, and found a movie that “dropped an emotional anchor down so I didn’t feel like I was floundering” in his sexuality.

Public libraries have always played a role in making stories accessible to everyone. Communities insist that libraries stock a set of stories that the community responds to. Stories stimulate imagination, construct community through shared reading, and make manifest moral weightings.

In his book, Wayne gives story, people, and place equal weight. “Stories and libraries as place has been as important, and for many people, more important than information.” We need to look at how these activities product human subjectivity as community-based. We lack a research base to comprehend the many ways libraries are used.

The death of libraries has been pronounced too early. In 2012, the US has more libraries than ever. Attendance in 2012 dipped because the hours libraries are open went down that year, but for the decade it was up 28%. [May have gotten the number wrong a bit.] In 2012, libraries circulated 2.2B items, up 28% from 2003. And more. [Too fast to capture.] The prophets of doom have too narrow a view of what libraries do and are. “We have to expand the boundaries of our professional discourse beyond information.”

Libraries fighting against budget cuts too often replicate the stereotypes. “Public libraries no longer are warehouses of book” gives credence to the falsehood that libraries ever were that.

He ends by introducing Dawn Logsdon who is working on a film for 2017 titled Free for All: Inside the Public Library. (She’s been taping people at the conference and assures the audience that whatever doesn’t make into the film will be available online.) She shows a few minutes of a prior documentary of hers: Faubourg Treme.

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August 1, 2015

Restoring the Network of Bloggers

It’s good to have Hoder — Hossein Derakhshan— back. After spending six years in an Iranian jail, his voice is stronger than ever. The changes he sees in the Web he loves are distressingly real.

Hoder was in the cohort of early bloggers who believed that blogs were how people were going to find their voices and themselves on the Web. (I tried to capture some of that feeling in a post a year and a half ago.) Instead, in his great piece in Medium he describes what the Web looks like to someone extremely off-line for six years: endless streams of commercial content.

Some of the decline of blogging was inevitable. This was made apparent by Clay Shirky’s seminal post that showed that the scaling of blogs was causing them to follow a power law distribution: a small head followed by a very long tail.

Blogs could never do what I, and others, hoped they would. When the Web started to become a thing, it was generally assumed that everyone would have a home page that would be their virtual presence on the Internet. But home pages were hard to create back then: you had to know HTML, you had to find a host, you had to be so comfortable with FTP that you’d use it as a verb. Blogs, on the other hand, were incredibly easy. You went to one of the blogging platforms, got yourself a free blog site, and typed into a box. In fact, blogging was so easy that you were expected to do it every day.

And there’s the rub. The early blogging enthusiasts were people who had the time, skill, and desire to write every day. For most people, that hurdle is higher than learning how to FTP. So, blogging did not become everyone’s virtual presence on the Web. Facebook did. Facebook isn’t for writers. Facebook is for people who have friends. That was a better idea.

But bloggers still exist. Some of the early cohort have stopped, or blog infrequently, or have moved to other platforms. Many blogs now exist as part of broader sites. The term itself is frequently applied to professionals writing what we used to call “columns,” which is a shame since part of the importance of blogging was that it was a way for amateurs to have a voice.

That last value is worth preserving. It’d be good to boost the presence of local, individual, independent bloggers.

So, support your local independent blogger! Read what she writes! Link to it! Blog in response to it!

But, I wonder if a little social tech might also help. . What follows is a half-baked idea. I think of it as BOAB: Blogger of a Blogger.

Yeah, it’s a dumb name, and I’m not seriously proposing it. It’s an homage to Libby Miller [twitter:LibbyMiller] and Dan Brickley‘s [twitter:danbri ] FOAF — Friend of a Friend — idea, which was both brilliant and well-named. While social networking sites like Facebook maintain a centralized, closed network of people, FOAF enables open, decentralized social networks to emerge. Anyone who wants to participate creates a FOAF file and hosts it on her site. Your FOAF file lists who you consider to be in your social network — your friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, etc. It can also contain other information, such as your interests. Because FOAF files are typically open, they can be read by any application that wants to provide social networking services. For example, an app could see that Libby ‘s FOAF file lists Dan as a friend, and that Dan’s lists Libby, Carla and Pete. And now we’re off and running in building a social network in which each person owns her own information in a literal and straightforward sense. (I know I haven’t done justice to FOAF, but I hope I haven’t been inaccurate in describing it.)

BOAB would do the same, except it would declare which bloggers I read and recommend, just as the old “blogrolls” did. This would make it easier for blogging aggregators to gather and present networks of bloggers. Add in some tags and now we can browse networks based on topics.

In the modern age, we’d probably want to embed BOAB information in the HTML of a blog rather than in a separate file hidden from human view, although I don’t know what the best practice would be. Maybe both. Anyway, I presume that the information embedded in HTML would be similar to what does: information about what a page talks about is inserted into the HTML tags using a specified vocabulary. The great advantage of is that the major search engines recognize and understand its markup, which means the search engines would be in a position to constructdiscover the initial blog networks.

In fact, has a blog specification already. I don’t see anything like markup for a blogroll, but I’m not very good a reading specifications. In any case, how hard could it be to extend that specification? Mark a link as being to a blogroll pal, and optionally supply some topics? (Dan Brickley works on

So, imagine a BOAB widget that any blogger can easily populate with links to her favorite blog sites. The widget can then be easily inserted into her blog. Hidden from the users in this widget is the appropriate markup. Not only could the search engines then see the blogger network, so could anyone who wanted to write an app or a service.

I have 0.02 confidence that I’m getting the tech right here. But enhancing blogrolls so that they are programmatically accessible seems to me to be a good idea. So good that I have 0.98 confidence that it’s already been done, probably 10+ years ago, and probably by Dave Winer :)

Ironically, I cannot find Hoder’s personal site; is down, at least at the moment.

More shamefully than ironically, I haven’t updated this blog’s blogroll in many years.

My recent piece in The Atlantic about whether the Web has been irremediably paved touches on some of the same issues as Hoder’s piece.


July 19, 2015

Wikipedia is too hard: A suggestion

Frequently we consult encyclopedias because a concept came up in conversation or in something we’re reading, and we need to know just enough about it to be able to move on. But it seems to me that more and more frequently Wikipedia’s explanations are too hard and too detailed for this.

For example, if Planck’s Constant came up in something I was reading and I needed to know just enough to make sense of it, here’s how Wikipedia begins its explanation:

Wikipedia first paragraph about Planck's Constant

That may be fine for a physics student, but I need something more like this:

Simple Wikipedia's Planck Constant explanation

Much better.

That happens to come from the Simple Wikipedia. If the article you’re looking at has the address, replace the “en” with “simple” ( and often you’ll get a far more intelligible answer. Well, “often” means 113,937 articles in English so far.

One of the reasons Simple Wikipedia’s opening paragraphs are clearer than Regular Old Wikipedia’s is that Regular’s explanations often think that links replace explanations: you don’t have to explain “proportionality constant” if you link it to its Wikipedia article. That’s great for browsing on a quiet Sunday afternoon, but not great if you’re looking up something in service of understanding something else. Linking instead of explaining seems to me to be lazy.

So here’s a request for someone to write a browser extension that, when you hover over a link in a WP page, pops up the first paragraph of the linked article. If there’s a Simple WP version, it should pop up that first paragraph. Getting an explanation without leaving the page is not just a convenience. It would help preserve the reading experience and improve comprehension.

If this also encouraged writing first paragraphs that are clear enough that they let us get a quick hit of understanding and then move on, so much the better.

In fact, if I were King of Wikipedia, I’d take the first paragraphs of all 113,937 Simple Wikipedia articles and make them the first paragraph of the articles of which they are the simplifications. And then I would retire to my Wiki Castle and drink some wiki mead.

As i was poking around for a bad example of a first paragraph, I came across many good examples. Here’s just one:

In the late 19th century, luminiferous aether, æther or ether, meaning light-bearing aether, was the postulated medium for the propagation of light. It was invoked to explain the ability of the apparently wave-based light to propagate through empty space, something that waves should not be able to do.

Got it! Thank you, Wikipedia!


June 27, 2015

Does the moral universe arc?

“The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice.”

Does it?

That saying was of course made famous by Martin Luther King who put it between quotation marks to indicate that it was not original with him. Had King’s own arc not been stopped short by a white racist with a gun, it might have been MLK, at the age of 86, who addressed us on Friday in Charlestown. As it is, our President did him proud.

The always awesome Quote Investigator tells us that the quotation in fact came from Theodore Parker in 1857; Parker was a Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist, and abolitionist. The entire sermon (“Of Justice and the Conscience,” pp. 66-102) is worth reading, but here’s the relevant snippet:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

The sermon points out that the wicked often suffer in ways that the outside world can’t perceive. But Parker is realistic enough to recognize that “we do not see that justice is always done on earth,” (p. 89) and he proceeds to remind his congregation of some of the overwhelming evils present in the world, including: “Three million slaves earn the enjoyment of Americans, who curse them in the name of Christ.” (p. 90) Neither does Parker let us rest in the comfortable thought that justice reigns in the next world. We need a “conscious development of the moral element in man, and a corresponding expansion of justice in human affairs…” (p. 90).

But, is Parker right? Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice, or towards injustice, or toward neither, or toward entropy? Why shouldn’t we think we construct that arc out of our wishes and happy thoughts?

Parker’s support for his claim is not what sight shows him but what is visible to his conscience. But what did conscience mean to him?

In 1850 Parker delivered a sermon called “The Function and Place of Conscience in Relation to the Laws.” He begins by explaining the term: “It is the function of conscience to discover to men the moral law of God.” He puts it on a level with our other faculties, part of the reaction against the reduction of consciousness to what comes through our sense organs. Transcendentalists were influenced by Kant who argued that sense perception wouldn’t add up to experience if we didn’t come into the world with a pre-existing ability to organize perceptions in time, space, causality, etc. In addition, affirms Parker, we have a faculty — conscience — that lets us understand things in terms of their moral qualities. That faculty is as fallible as the others, but it is “adequate to the purpose God meant for it”; otherwise God would have failed to outfit us adequately for the task He has set us, which would be on Him.

For Parker, conscience (knowledge of what is right) is at least as important as intellect (knowledge of the world). In “Of Justice and Conscience,” he bemoans that “We have statistical societies for interest” but “no moral societies for justice.” (p. 92) “There is no college for conscience.” (p. 93). (Statistics as a concept and a field had entered British culture at the beginning of the 19th century. By the 1850s it had become a dominant way of evaluating legislative remedies there. See Too Big to Know for a discussion of this. Yeah, I just product placed my own book.)

The faculty of justice (conscience) is at least as important as the faculty of intellect, for conscience drives action. In “The Function and Place of Conscience,” he writes:

Nothing can absolve me from this duty, neither the fact that it is uncomfortable or unpopular, nor that is conflicts with my desires, my passions, my immediate interests, and my plans in life. Such is the place of conscience amongst other faculties of my nature

Indeed, the heart of this sermon is the injunction to rise to the demands inherent in our being children of God, and to reject any conflicting demands by government, business, or society.

Much of this sermon could be quoted by those who refuse as businesspeople or government employees to serve same-sex couples, although Parker is talking about returning fugitive slaves to their owners, not decorating cakes:

This statute [the Fugutive Slave Act] is not to be laid to the charge of the slaveholders of the South alone; its most effective supporters are northern men; Boston is more to be blamed for it than Charleston or Savannah, for nearly a thousand persons of this city and neighborhood, most of them men of influence through money if by no other means, addressed a letter of thanks to the distinguished man who had volunteered to support that infamous bill telling him that he had “convinced the understanding and touched the conscience of the nation.”

That “distinguished man” was, shockingly, Daniel Webster. Webster had been an eloquent and fierce abolitionist. But in 1850, he argued just as fiercely in support of the Fugitive Slave Act in order to preserve the union. Parker wrote an impassioned account of this in his 1853 Life of Daniel Webster.

Parker’s sermon exhorts his congregants, in a passage well worth reading, to resist the law. “[I]t is the natural duty of citizens to rescue every fugitive slave from the hands of the marshal who essays to return him to bondage; to do it peaceably if they can, forcibly if they must, but by all means to do it.”

So, conscience trumps the other faculties by bringing us to act on behalf of justice. But the moral law that conscience lets us perceive is different from the laws of nature. Parker writes in “Of Justice” that there is no gap between the natural laws and their fulfillment. This is so much the case that we learn those laws by observing nature’s regularities. But the moral law “unlike attraction [i.e., gravity] … does not work free from all hindrance.” (p. 69). The moral law requires fulfillment by humans. We are imperfect, so there is a gap between the moral law and the realm over which it rules.

Parker continues: Even if we could learn the law of right through observation and experience — just as we learn the laws of nature — those laws would feel arbitrary. In any case, because history is still unfolding, we can’t learn our moral lessons from it, for our justice has not yet been actualized in history. (p. 73) Man has “an ideal of nature which shames his actual of history.” (p. 73) So, “God has given us a moral faculty, the conscience…” (p. 72) to see what we have yet not made real.

Intellect is not enough. Only conscience can see the universe’s incomplete moral arc.

So, does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice?

Our intellect sets off warning flares. History is too complex to have a shape. The shape we perceive of course looks like progress because we always think that what we think is the right thing to think, so we think we’re thinking better than did those who came before us. And, my intellect says quite correctly, yeah, sure you’d think that, Mr. Privileged White Guy.

At the moment of despair — when even in Boston citizens are signing letters in favor of returning people back to their enslavement — “The arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice” brings hope. No, it says, you’re not going to get what you deserve, but your children might, or their children after them. It is a hard, hard hope.

But is it true?

I will postulate what Theodore Parker did not: Neither our intellect nor conscience can know what the universe’s arc will actually be. Even thinking it has any shape requires an act of imagination that bears an unfathomable cost of forgetting.

But, I believe that Parker was right that conscience — our sense of right and wrong — informs our intellect. Hope is to moral perception as light is to vision: You cannot perceive the world within its moral space without believing there is a point to action. And we can’t perceive outside of that moral space, for it is within the moral space that the universe and what we do in it matters. Even science — crucial science — is pursued as a moral activity, as something that matters beyond itself. If nothing you do can have any effect on what matters beyond your own interests, then moral behavior is pointless and self-indulgent. Hope is moral action’s light.

So, of course I don’t know if the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. But if there is a moral universe, modest hopes bend its history.


June 3, 2015

[liveblog] Shaping the future: Minister of Ed

I am at an event in Tel Aviv called “Shaping the Future,” put on by the Center for Educational Technology; I’m on the advisory board. (I missed the ed tech hackathon that was held over the past two days because of a commitment to another event. I was very sorry to miss it. From all reports it was a great success. No surprise. I’m a big fan of Avi Warshavski, the head of MindCET, CET’s ed tech incubator.)

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. And I’m hearing this through a translator. You are warned, people.

The minister of ed, Naftali Bennett, is speaking. He’s a tech entrepreneur ( and also a right winger).

He begins by saying his son helped him fix his home wifi. A hundred years ago, that wouldnt have been possible because here was a monopoly on info, and it didn’t move from child to parent. We are in a time of radical change of reality. The changes in tech go beyond the changes in tech. E.g., the invention of the car also created suburbs.

Tech is not a spice for ed, a nice addition. There’s a transformative possibility. Israel went from 30K grads of a math exam to 9K. This is a threat to Israel, to develop Iron Domes, to win nobel prizes. We’re analyzing the issue. There are many hundreds of schools that don’t allow math ed sufficient for passing this test at the highest level. Few make it through MOOCs. It’s not going to work on its own.

The answer? I don’t know. Trial and error. We’ll fail and succeed.

Take a school with no qualified math teacher. What if we have a MOOC, online courses? The class will teach itself. The teacher will be a coach, facilitator, a motivator. But you need a self assurance on the part of the teacher. The teacher does not know the material. It’s a bungie jump for the teacher. The chain will be measured not by the weakest link but the strongest link. Success will be measured by the average. The 2-4% will get the material through the online materials. Then, just like butterflies, they will teah the other students. The students just has to connect the students. You don’t come to the teacher to ask what is the solution. The teacher says, “I don’t know. Let’s work on this together.” In Judaism, we call this “havruta”[1]: sitting together in a group studying Talmud. We can join online courses with the Jewish idea of studying in a group. Connect the two and who knows what the outcome will be?

We now need teachers who are willing to dare. In the next year we’ll have all sorts of experimentation. No one knows if we’ll succeed .Wherever it’s success we’ll carry on with this.

[1] Thanks to Jay Hurvitz for correcting the Hebrew word. He adds: “Some of us prefer to write it – “khavrutah” – ?????? – from the root for both friendship and joining.”

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June 1, 2015

[misc][liveblog] Alex Wright: The secret history of hypertext

I’m in Oslo for Kunnskapsorganisasjonsdagene, which my dear friend Google Translate tells me is Knowledge Organization Days. I have been in Oslo a few times before — yes, once in winter, which was as cold as Boston but far more usable — and am always re-delighted by it.

Alex Wright is keynoting this morning. The last time I saw him was … in Oslo. So apparently Fate has chosen this city as our Kismet. Also coincidence. Nevertheless, I always enjoy talking with Alex, as we did last night, because he is always thinking about, and doing, interesting things. He’s currently at Etsy , which is a fascinating and inspiring place to work, and is a professor interaction design,. He continues to think about the possibilities for design and organization that led him to write about Paul Otlet who created what Alex has called an “analog search engine”: a catalog of facts expressed in millions of index cards.

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.

Alex begins by telling us that he began as a librarian, working as a cataloguer for six years. He has a library degree. As he works in the Net, he finds himself always drawn back to libraries. The Net’s fascination with the new brings technologists to look into the future rather than to history. Alex asks, “How do we understand the evolution of the Web and the Net in an historical context?” We tend to think of the history of the Net in terms of computer science. But that’s only part of the story.

A big part of the story takes us into the history of libraries, especially in Europe. He begins his history of hypertext with the 16th century Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner who created a “universal bibliography” by writing each entry on a slip of paper. Leibniz used the same technique, writing notes on slips of paper and putting them in an index cabinet he had built to order.

In the 18th century, the French started using playing cards to record information. At the beginning of the 19th, the Jacquard loom used cards to guide weaving patterns, inspiring Charles Babbage to create what many [but not me] consider to be the first computer.

In 1836, Isaac Adams created the steam powered printing press. This, along with economic and social changes, enabled the mass production of books, newspapers, and magazines. “This is when the information explosion truly started.”

To make sense of this, cataloging systems were invented. They were viewed as regimented systems that could bring efficiencies … a very industrial concept, Alex says.

“The mid-19th century was also a period of networking”: telegraph systems, telephones, internationally integrated postal systems. “Goods, people, and ideas were flowing across national borders in a way they never had before.” International journals. International political movements, such as Marxism. International congresses (conferences). People were optimistic about new political structures emerging.

Alex lists tech from the time that spread information: a daily reading of the news over copper wires, pneumatic tubes under cities (he references Molly Wright Steenson‘s great work on this), etc.

Alex now tells us about Paul Otlet, a Belgian who at the age of 15 started designing his own cataloging system. He and a partner, Henri La Fontaine, started creating bibliographies of disciplines, starting with the law. Then they began a project to create a universal bibliography.

Otlet thought libraries were focused on the wrong problem. Getting readers to the right book isn’t enough. People also need access to the information in the books. At the 1900 [?] world’s fair in Paris, Otlet and La Fontaine demonstrated their new system. They wanted to provide a universal language for expressing the connections among topics. It was not a top-down system like Dewey’s.

Within a few years, with a small staff (mainly women) they had 15 million cards in their catalog. You could buy a copy of the catalog. You could send a query by telegraphy, and get a response telegraphed back to you, for a fee.

Otlet saw this in a bigger context. He and La Fontaine created the Union of International Associations, an association of associations, as the governing body for the universal classification system. The various associations would be responsible for their discpline’s information.

Otlet met a Scotsman named Patrick Geddes who worked against specialization and the fracturing of academic disciplines. He created a camera obscura in Edinburgh so that people could see all of the city, from the royal areas and the slums, all at once. He wanted to stitch all this information together in a way that would have a social effect. [I’ve been there as a tourist and had no idea!] He also used visual forms to show the connections between topics.

Geddes created a museum, the Palais Mondial, that was organized like hypertext., bringing together topics in visually rich, engaging displays. The displays are forerunners of today’s tablet-based displays.

Another collaborator, Hendrik Christian Andersen, wanted to create a world city. He went deep into designing it. He and Otlet looked into getting land in Belgium for this. World War I put a crimp in the idea of the world joining in peace. Otlet and Andersen were early supporters of the idea of a League of Nations.

After the War, Otlet became a progressive activist, including for women’s rights. As his real world projects lost momentum, in the 1930s he turned inward, thinking about the future. How could the new technologies of radio, television, telephone, etc., come together? (Alex shows a minute from the documentary, The Man who wanted to Classify the World.”) Otlet imagines a screen and television instead of books. All the books and info are in a separate facility, feeding the screen. “The radiated library and the televised book.” 1934.

So, why has no one ever heard of Otlet? In part because he worked in Belgium in the 1930s. In the 1940s, the Nazis destroyed his work. They replaced his building, destrooying 70 tons of materials, with an exhibit of Nazi art.

Although there are similarities to the Web, how Otlet’s system worked was very different. His system was a much more controlled environment, with a classification system, subject experts, etc. … much more a publishing system than a bottom-up system. Linked Data and the Semantic Web are very Otlet-ish ideas. RDF triples and Otlet’s “auxiliary tables” are very similar.

Alex now talks about post-Otlet hypertext pioneers.

H.G. Wells’ “World Brain” essay from 1938. “The whole human memory can be, and probably in a shoirt time will be, made accessibo every individual.” He foresaw a complete and freely avaiable encyclopedia. He and Otlet met at a conference.

Emanuel Goldberg wanted to encode punchcard-style information on microfilm for rapid searching.

Then there’s Vannevar Bush‘s Memex that would let users create public trails between documents.

And Liklider‘s idea that different types of computers should be able to share infromation. And Engelbart who in 1968’s “Mother of all Demos” had a functioning hypertext system.

Ted Nelson thought computer scientists were focused on data computation rather than seeing computers as tools of connection. He invnted the term “hypertext,” the Xanadu web, and “transclusion” (embedding a doc in another doc). Nelson thought that links always should be two way. Xanadu= “intellectual property” controls built into it.

The Internet is very flat, with no central point of control. It’s self-organizing. Private corporations are much bigger on the Net than Otlet, Engelbart, and Nelson envisioned “Our access to information is very mediated.” We don’t see the classification system. But at sites like Facebook you see transclusion, two-way linking, identity management — needs that Otlet and others identified. The Semantic Web takes an Otlet-like approach to classification, albeit perhaps by algorithms rather than experts. Likewise, the Google “knowledge vaults” project tries to raise the ranking of results that come from expert sources.

It’s good to look back at ideas that were left by the wayside, he concludes, having just decisively demonstrated the truth of that conclusion :)

Q: Henry James?

A: James had something of a crush on Anderson, but when he saw the plan for the World City told him that it was a crazy idea.

[Wonderful talk. Read his book.]


May 23, 2015

[2b2k] Echo chambers and the importance of like-minded thinking

I’ve found the argument against Echo Chambers to be vexing.

On the one hand, I of course agree that it’s bad for us all when we only hang out with people whose views we share, because this tends to confirm us in our beliefs and even makes those beliefs more extreme.

On the other hand, I disagree with our Western liberal assumption that a genuine conversation is one in which we encounter radically opposite viewpoints with an open heart and mind. No, when I want to understand the meaning of, say, a court ruling about gay marriage, I’m not going to go first to a site that thinks homosexuality is a damnable sin. I’m going to go to my nearest local “echo chamber.” Understanding is incremental. It fits the new into our existing context. That’s how understanding works.

I find a great deal of truth in a passage sent to me by a friend of mine. (I’ll replace that phrase with his name once I’m able to reach him to ask permission). It’s a passage by Swami Vivekananda, “from his book Raja Yoga, a modern study of the founding text of yoga (India, approx 400 CE).” My friend continues, “In it S. Vivekananda is commenting on one of the first of the yoga sutras, which outlines the path the prospective adept must walk.”

“What is meant by study in this case? No study of novels or story books, but study of those works which teach the liberation of the Soul. Then again this study does not mean controversial studies at all. The Yogi is supposed to have finished his period of controversy. He has had enough of that, and has become satisfied. He only studies to intensify his convictions. Vâda and Siddhânta — these are the two sorts of scriptural knowledge — Vada (the argumentative) and Siddhanta (the decisive). When a man is entirely ignorant he takes up the first of these, the argumentative fighting, and reasoning pro and con; and when he has finished that he takes up the Siddhanta, the decisive, arriving at a conclusion. Simply arriving at this conclusion will not do. It must be intensified. Books are infinite in number, and time is short; therefore the secret of knowledge is to take what is essential. Take that and try to live up to it.

There is an old Indian legend that if you place a cup of milk and water before a Râja-Hamsa (swan), he will take all the milk and leave the water. In that way we should take what is of value in knowledge, and leave the dross. Intellectual gymnastics are necessary at first. We must not go blindly into anything.

The Yogi has passed the argumentative state, and has come to a conclusion, which is, like the rocks, immovable. The only thing he now seeks to do is to intensify that conclusion. Do not argue, he says; if one forces arguments upon you, be silent. Do not answer any argument, but go away calmly, because arguments only disturb the mind. The only thing necessary is to train the intellect, what is the use of disturbing it for nothing? The intellect is but a weak instrument, and can give us only knowledge limited by the senses. The Yogi wants to go beyond the senses, therefore intellect is of no use to him. He is certain of this and, therefore, is silent, and does not argue. Every argument throws his mind out of balance, creates a disturbance in the Chitta (consciousness), and a disturbance is a drawback. Argumentations and searchings of the reason are only by the way. There are much higher things beyond them.

The whole of life is not for schoolboy fights and debating societies. “Surrendering the fruits of work to God” is to take to ourselves neither credit nor blame, but to give up both to the Lord and be at peace.” (Raja Yoga, ch 2, comment to verse 1)



February 17, 2015

[shorenstein][2b2k] Wesley Lowery on covering Ferguson and the effect of social media on the reporting ecosystem

Wesley Lowery is a Washington Post reporter, recently ex of the Boston Globe. He’s giving a Shorenstein Center lunchtime talk on covering Ferguson. [Afterwards: It was great.]

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.

Wesley’s reflections on the effect of social media on his ability to cover Ferguson seem to me to be especially insightful and nuanced. He does not cede all ground to social media, but instead uses it to do his job as a reporter, and sees its effect on every facet of his role.

Afterwards I asked him if the detailed view he gets from social media’s ability to let people tell their own story has affected his idea of what it means to “cover” an event. In particular, I asked him in our very compressed conversation whether he be satisfied if someone where to say to him, “I read you in every medium, and you’re the only person I need to read to get the Ferguson story.” He said he would be ok with that but only because so much of his social media contribution consists of references to other sources and other people, including to reports by other newspapers. Wesley is himself a web.

Wesley says he’s been covering the activities of Congress (“An easy workload,” he says to laughter). He was on social media on his phone as always when he started seeing Instagram videos of a shooting. “I jump over to Twitter and I see it’s getting traction among people who cover race.” The next day he’s getting off a flight to DC, checks his phone, and sees a fight has broken out, a gas station is about to burn down. “And I’m thinking, what’s happening in this place I never heard of?” He’s interested in race and ethnicity, so he decides to go to Missouri for a day. He’s there for six months (Aug. 11 – Dec. 11). “It became apparent really quickly that this was a story about more than an 18 yr old boy who got shot.”

He went to a NAACP town hall. He’s been to many, but over a thousand people were inside, and hundreds were waiting in the parking lot to hear what was going on. That’s when he knew that this was about something bigger.

Two days after the shooting, he meets up with someone who turned out to be important in the movement. [Didn’t get her name.] She agrees to guide him. Ferguson is a suburban town, he explains. He and she were walking up a side street when they heard the noise of a police-protestor standoff. They go to it and are hit with the first teargas of the protests. Lots of people who were just curious were caught in it — people coming out to see what the hubub was about, etc.

We see Ferguson through our own lenses, he says. But each state has its own history, own demographic issues, etc. “As I learned more about Missouri, I realized so much of the distrust is not about this shooting, but about the guy who was pulled over the week before.” Wesley interviewed a kid who later was in an iconic photo of him throwing a teargas canister back at the police. The kid said, “Look, when this is all over, you’ll go back home, but we’ll still be here.” [approx.]

Boston, Wesley says, has a perpetual middle child syndrome. “We’re as good as NYC!” we keep insisting. To be a reporter in Boston, Wesley had to go to extra lengths to understand Boston’s cultural and civic history. It’s easy for reporters to fall into reporting about places they don’t know, and do so in giant swooping gestures. Wesley’s aim was seek out local people who could inform him about the reality of the place. And maybe after writing two pieces a day for months he’d be in a position to write a swooping piece.

So he used social media extensively, mainly to show people things. If you are sitting in NY or Wyoming and want to know what Ferguson is, here are the images and voices. The newspapers tend to show us the same images. But here’s a photo of the block past the iconic burning gas station that you’ve seen a thousand times. “If you don’t tackle stories this way, you’ll lose your role as essential to understanding the story.”

Before social media, people couldn’t tell their own stories. Now they can. “I won’t forget the person who watched the shooting and live tweeted it. He said something like, ‘Fuck, the police just shot a guy outside my apartment.’ I could write about that, but he can now tell his own story.” And people now can take journalists to task for particular lines in a story. It used to be that we’d decide what’s newsworthy, says Wesley. The people who are there would have to wait until 6 o’clock to see if we deem it as newsworthy. Now the people participating in the event can shame the news media into showing up. It empowers people in a way that they’ve never been before.

We saw in Ferguson the depth and nuance of the stories being told. The reporters who were able to excel were able to engage in a two-way conversation, not a publishing conversation. That changed the tenor and the depth of our coverage.

We’re now having a large-scale conversation across America about policing practices. That may be a legacy of Ferguson, but we can’t tell yet.

For the medium, the legacy is: You have to engage people where they are and recognize they can tell their own stories. And we have to be in conversation with people, ineract them. The people we cover now have more voice than ever about our coverage, which means we have to be more interactive with them. Every story I write I wonder what the response will be. We have to be responsive.


Why did you become a journalist?

I’m not exactly sure. My dad was a journalist. My family valued it. But we clashed all the time. Even so, the first person awake brought in the newspaper, and that was the dinner conversation. That instilled a sense of the nobility of this craft that people today don’t grow up with. You became a journalist if you had some ability to take care of yourself economically, not to get out of poverty. It was for idealists. Now it frequently draws people who want to tell the story of the people they grew up with. And now there are fewer barriers to entry. You can be blogging on the side. I encourage people to go into the field It’s an amazing moment now. Everything is undecided.

Q: Are you a denizen of the Jeff Bezos wing of the Washington Post?

I don’t think that quite exists yet. A lot of Amazon is designed to make cognitive decisions lower, less friction. Now that people have so many more media choices, we have to be much more about giving readers access to the content they want. The people we’re bringing in are young, innovative thinkers, and it’s as if they’re saying, “We haven’t figured this out yet, but in three years we’re going to be awesome!” That’s the team I want to be on.

Q: How important do you think Ferguson will be ultimately?

A: It’s so hard in the moment to figure out what the moment is. In 30 yrs, Ferguson will be a linchpin, but it’s part of a whole line of events, including Katrina, the election of a black President, etc. We’ve been locked in a perpetual dialogue on race since the election of Obama. Ferguson turned a corner into action, for better or worse. This prompted the elected officials and the society to say that we can’t continue just talking about this. We have to do something. We’re still seeing demonstrations in a dozen cities every day.

Q: How does one live in a community all your life and not notice and do something about the racial imblance in the police force, for example?

A: The community is transient because it’s somewhat upwardly mobile. Few have lived in Ferguson their whole lives. [He talks about a popular African-American school superintendent fired by a mainly white school board.] The Brown shooting is part of a larger context.

Q: How do you manage pressure in the midst of such a heated environment? The community and the cops each feel unheard.

A: It’s remarkably tough. We get the feedback in real time while we’re doing it. We’re getting teargassed and someone is criticizing a word I used on Twitter. It creates this remarkable pressure. I tried to use the platform to amplify whatever anyone was telling me. But it’s hard to get the cops to speak. When they did, I’d tried to get out that word, too.

Q: What are the impacts of the coverage on the community?

A: The Internet makes us think we know about the news. We see the FB post about Ebola, but we don’t read the article. The deep saturation of media coverage often drowns out the depth of media coverage. Ferguson sorely missed having a newspaper there that was asking hard questions. There are places that really need someone to come in, notice that things are really messed up, make some information requests, etc. On the other hand, watching Ferguson on CNN burning for days and days has an impact. Our job, which we largely failed at, was to provide spatial context. Three blocks of Ferguson burned. It’s a big suburb.

Q: [missed it]

A: You’re no longer a mysterious person who’s name is at the top of the article. People read articles sometimes because they find the personality of the reporter attractive. As a reporter, who you are as a person is open to scrutiny and criticism and to feedback about things that aren’t about your work. It’s an occupational hazard now, but it’s also a positive thing: I have a lot of meaningful relationships via social media with people I don’t know. Huge pros and cons. Since Ferguson, I try to be more siloed. I take long periods of time when I’m not on Twitter — like for a day and a half.

Q: Why haven’t the mayor and police chief felt the need to step down in the face of the criticism? And how about your arrest?

A: It’s stunning that they weathered it. In part it’s because what people on the Internet say doesn’t matter. It’s the constituents who count. Also, if you’ve been taking a group of people for granted for so long, why start now? Media don’t have as much power as they think they do.

A: About the arrest: Me and a friend were the first journalists arrested in Ferguson. We were in a McD’s for the wifi. A SWAT suggested they leave because of imminent conflict. “Do we have to leave?” The police got impatient. [That’s my gross TLDR. Here’s Wesley’s news report, with video.]

Q: I start following you when you were live-tweeting the Marathon bombing. At some point, you became the story. How does that change your responsibility?

A: The “personal branding” — he hates that phrase — makes you as a reporter part of the story. In some ways it’s a more transparent interaction. You can gauge for yourself whether I’m handling it properly. We have an obligation to be fair, honest, and transparent. You have to recognize that the Internet world is very different from your real, personal life.

Q: What were the effective platforms that were getting it right? And who?

A: When the entire media show up, I look for the people who are telling the story a little differently. I had to do a bit of both. [He gives a list of reporters. I missed it entirely.]

Q: An interesting narrative was built up around Ron Johnson, African-American Highway Patrol captainm who was portrayed as a savior…

A: The media wanted a savior. Johnson was a soothing factor for a day and a half. But when a community is actually upset, it’s not appeased by the black state trooper who the media says is going to solve all the problems. It’s bigger than that.

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January 25, 2015

[2b2k]’s updates: A new rhetorical form for journalism? is working hard to take the Web down a notch — the notch where, say, an announcement by NASA that they’ve discovered a possibly habitable planet in another galaxy gets the headline “Scientists find another Earth…and you won’t believe what it’s going to do to the value of your home!”

Jason Calacanis, the founder of the site, and someone I hadn’t talked with since the glory days of blogging, emphasized the site’s commitment to the “atomic unit” of journalism, a particular type of summary that he calls an “update.” It’s not often you get a new rhetorical form, especially for something as important as journalism. But does it work? Does it serve a role we need or want?

It’s an interesting exercise: If you had the opportunity to design a new rhetorical form that will fit news onto a mobile device — that’s where people will read most of their news, Jason is convinced — and will do the best job possible of conveying information without sensationalizing it, what would you come up with? Something longer than a tweet, or a headline crawling under Wolf Blitzer? Full sentences? Definitely free of clickbait. But would you use bullet points?would the headline try to summarize or capture interest? Would you have a headline at all? has its answer to the question, and it follows the form quite rigorously. An “update” — a name I find misleading since there may not be an original story it’s updating — starts with a sentence of 12-15 words in boldface that express the basic news. That’s followed by another sentence or two telling you what you most need to know next. There’s a relevant graphic element, but no headline, so there’s no need to try to flag the reader’s interest in just a few screaming words.


Screencapture of an update

An update also contains a link to the original article — the actual source article, not one that another site has aggregated — the author’s name, and the name of the person who curated the article. And tags: embedded as links in the article, and one at the bottom if needed. This seems to me to be the Minimum Right Stuff to include.Updates are written by the fifty people around the world has hired for $12/hour.

So, how does this human-crafted rhetorical form hold up against the snippets Google News algorithmically derives and features under its headlines?

Here’s Google’s report on what is the top story at as I write this:

Yemen’s President, Cabinet resign
Yemen’s President resigned Thursday night shortly after his Prime Minister and the Cabinet stepped down — seismic changes in the country’s political scene that come just one day after the government and Houthi rebels struck a …


A report from close to Yemen’s prime minister says the government has offered its resignation. There is no word yet on whether the president will accept the resignation. Houthi rebels still hold the capital, and the president is still a virtual prisoner in his home.’s seems obviously preferable. Google (which is summarizing a post at in this case) squanders most of its space simply telling us that it’s a big deal. tells us four things, which is three more than Google’s summary.

Another example, this time for the second article at (for which you have to do an explicit search at Google News). Google News:

Pentagon Scolds Air Force for Wasting Nearly $9 Billion on 
Drones are expensive. Aircraft like General Atomics’s MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper cost millions of dollars piece, while the cost of …

A memo from the Pentagon says the U.S. Air Force’s investment in drones is extravagant. The memo suggests that the Air Force is wasting as much as $8.8 billion in maintaining 46 Reaper drones. The memo says the Air Force has not justified the expanding drone fleet. hands down. Plus, the Google News snippet comes from Gizmodo, which seems to have based its post heavily on an article in The Guardian. links its update directly to The Guardian. There’s nothing wrong with what Gizmodo has done; it’s explicit about its use of info from The Guardian and adds its own commentary and links. But I’d rather have Google News snip directly from the source.

One more example, the third item at Google News:

AirAsia flight QZ8501: black box reveals final moments
The cockpit voice recorder from AirAsia flight QZ8501 has revealed that “screaming alarms” warned the pilots of immediate danger before the …

Divers find six bodies from AirAsia flight QZ8501 but are unable to enter the fuselage. It is believed the majority of victims will be found there. Indonesia’s Rear Admiral Widodo says the wreckage will be lifted to the surface Friday. So far, 59 bodies have been found.

The score is 3:0 in favor of as far as I’m concerned.

Now, that’s not to say that is a superior news service. Google News covers many more items at this point, and refreshes more often. In fact, in the time it took me to copy and paste these examples, Google News had a posted a fresher story about the events in Yemen. Also, Google News lets you browse among many newspapers’ coverage of the same event. (Jason responds that gets posts up in 2-7 mins after an event hits the Web, and it immediately posts submitted links even before a human has written an update for it.)

But when it comes to the actual content the two services provide,’s human-crafted text does the job of educating us quickly far better. Google News doesn’t even try that hard; it aims at giving us enough that we can see if we’re interested enough to click on the link and read the whole story.

Then there is the broader difference in what we’d like such services to do. Google News is a form of headline news. If we only read the Google News page without clicking into any stories, we’ll have very thin knowledge of what’s going on. In fact, it couldn’t get any thinner. With, if we just read the boldfaced first sentences, we’ll come out knowing more than if we read the Google News headlines. We do want to be sure that people understand that three sentences are never the whole story. Unless the first sentence contains the word “Kardashian,” of course.

I don’t know if can scale the way it needs to in order to survive; Jason is very focused on that now. Also, I don’t have confidence yet that is giving me a reliable overview of the moments’ news — and, no, I don’t know what a “reliable overview” means or how to recognize one. But I do like the update as a rhetorical form. And since Jason says that will have an API, perhaps it can survive at least as a service feeding other news sites … maybe even Google News if Google could overcome its bias in favor of the algorithmic.

In any case, the update form has created seems to me to be a worthwhile addition to the rhetoric of journalism.


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