Joho the Blog

August 9, 2014

Tim Berners-Lee’s amazingly astute 1992 article on this crazy Web thing he started

Dan Brickley points to this incredibly prescient article by Tim Berners-Lee from 1992. The World Wide Web he gets the bulk of the credit for inventing was thriving at CERN where he worked. Scientists were linking to one another’s articles without making anyone type in a squirrely Internet address. Why, over a thousand articles were hyperlinked.

And on this slim basis, Tim outlines the fundamental challenges we’re now living through. Much of the world has yet to catch up with insights he derived from the slightest of experience.

May the rest of us have even a sliver of his genius and a heaping plateful of his generosity.

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Saturday songify fun

I find this recycling of culture to be fascinating. Or, to be more precise, the recycling of culture is culture. No recycling, no culture. Anyway, I’m mainly blogging these because each is fun in its own way.

These are in chronological order, but you might want to start out by going backwards. [August 24 2014: Chrome decided to start autoplaying these. Ack! So I've replaced the embedded versions with links. Sorry!]

The original kid’s interview

The interview songified

The Gregory Brothers sing the songification

(I am a massive Gregory Brothers fan.)

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August 8, 2014

The gasp of combined

“Prescription Painkillers Kill More Than Heroin and Cocaine … Combined” [Liberty Voice]

“The U.S. spent more on defense in 2012 than the countries with the next 10 highest budgets … combined.” [NBC News]

“Apple Now Worth More Than Microsoft, Google … Combined” [Time Business]1

Just when you’ve been impressed by how much bigger something is than two other things we already think are big, there’s a short pause, then: “combined!”

Gasp.

We love the “more than ___ … combined” trope. How could we not? It exists to surprise us. Are you impressed that the U.S. solar industry employs more people than the gas industry? You are? How about that it employs more than the coal industry? Even more surprised? Excellent! But wait’ll you hear this: It’s bigger than the coal and gas industries combined! Combined!! I bet you didn’t see that coming! Boom!

“More than … combined” is structured like a joke. No wonder we love it so.


1Three dots added to each for comic timing.

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August 2, 2014

Douglas Sturm, RIP

I read in my alumni magazine today that one of my old teachers, Douglas Sturm, died on May 6.

The freshman seminar I took with Prof. Sturm modeled for me what intellectual discourse could be like. It set me on my course.

Prof. Sturm was sharp as a tack but never used his analytic skills to make things smaller. Rather, he modeled a way of inquiring into big ideas by asking careful questions, and then asking more questions. He was a brilliant teacher.

Only after I graduated did I learn that he was a committed community peace activist. That side of him did not show up directly on campus. But I would have been very glad to have him as a neighbor.

Thank you, Prof. Sturm. As with all the great teachers, you taught me more than you know.


By coincidence a couple of days ago I wrote this poem. (Remember, we are required to forgive one another’s bad poetry.)

Dead Weight

If the death of each we knew
were stored as we do corn,
we each would have to buy a mule
and load it every morn.

Poor mule it is who in our wake
clip-clops uphill and back.
Poor mule it is who for our sake
stays hidden in its track.

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August 1, 2014

Time to invoke the Streisand Effect?

The Register just posted one of the most ridiculous pieces of clickbait trolling I’ve ever seen. They’re claiming that by posting the parody video below, the UK’s Open Rights Group is comparing people who defend their copyright to Hitler:

It helps to know a few things:

First, the movie the clip, taken from Downfall, has been used for this sort of re-titling parody well over a hundred times, with Hitler fulminating over everything from Miley Cyrus twerking to spam. (Here are seven recent parodies, and 25 from an article in 2009.) Note that the video above was created and posted by Brad Templeton in 2009.

Second, a few years ago, the producers of Downfall apparently got fed up with their movie becoming so well known and started issuing DMCA takedown notices for the parodies.

Third, two days ago the House of Lords protected parodies against copyright infringement suits — covered in the US by our policy of Fair Use. ORG linked to the Downfall parody to celebrate this victory for free speech.

So, it hurts my head how many ways The Register’s trolling gets things wrong. It’s as if someone were accused of violating Godwin’s Law because she invoked Godwin’s Law. [I am taking Godwin's Law as normative. Sue me.]

Here is the link to The Register article but I encourage you not to go there, just so they won’t feel that this sort of ridiculous trolling is profitable. Instead, we could perhaps invoke a version of the Streisand Effect by posting the video widely.


[A few hours later:] The Register just appended the following to their post:

Since the publication of this story, the ORG has contacted The
Register with this comment: “Earlier this week, the Open Rights
Group tweeted a Downfall parody about copyright on the day that
parody exceptions for copyright were approved by the House of
Lords. Downfall parodies are widely recognised and have been used
to great satirical effect about a wide range of subjects. It is
wilful ignorance to portray a Downfall parody as a direct
comparison with Hitler and Nazism.”

Yup.

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[2b2k] Ethanz on Steve Jobs, genius, and CEOs

Ethan Zuckerman has a great post that begins with a recounting of his youthful discomfort with the way the CEO of his early social media company, Tripod, was treated by the media as if he had done it all by himself.

Hearing me rant about this one too many times, Kara Berklich, our head of marketing, pulled me aside and explained that the visionary CEO was a necessary social construct. With Bo as the single protagonist of our corporate story, we were far more marketable than a complex story with half a dozen key figures and a cast of thousands. When you’re selling a news story, it’s easier to pitch House than Game of Thrones.

This leads Ethan to discourse on the social nature of innovation, and to a brilliant critique of Steve Jobs the person and the book.

My personal TL;DR: Geniuses are networks. But, then, aren’t we all?

Bonus: Ethan includes this coverage from Nightline, 1997. This is what the Internet looked like — at its best — to the media back then. (Go to 2:36 for Ethan his own self.)

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July 27, 2014

[eim] Alphabetical order explained in a mere 27,817 words

This is one of the most amazing examples I’ve seen of the complexity of even simple organizational schemes. “Unicode Collation Algorithm (Unicode Technical Standard #10)” spells out in precise detail how to sort strings in what we might colloquially call “alphabetical order.” But it’s way, way, way more complex than that.

Unicode is an international standard for how strings of characters get represented within computing systems. For example, in the familiar ASCII encoding, the letter “A” is represented in computers by the number 65. But ASCII is too limited to encode the world’s alphabets. Unicode does the job.

As the paper says, “Collation is the general term for the process and function of determining the sorting order of strings of characters” so that, for example, users can look them up on a list. Alphabetical order is a simple form of collation.

Sorting inconsistent alphabets is, well, a problem. But let Technical Standard #10 explain the problem:

It is important to ensure that collation meets user expectations as fully as possible. For example, in the majority of Latin languages, ø sorts as an accented variant of o, meaning that most users would expect ø alongside o. However, a few languages, such as Norwegian and Danish, sort ø as a unique element after z. Sorting “Søren” after “Sylt” in a long list, as would be expected in Norwegian or Danish, will cause problems if the user expects ø as a variant of o. A user will look for “Søren” between “Sorem” and “Soret”, not see it in the selection, and assume the string is missing, confused because it was sorted in a completely different location.

Heck, some French dictionaries even sort their accents in reverse order. (See Section 1.3.)

But that’s nothing. Here’s a fairly random paragraph from further into this magnificent document (section 7.2):

In the DUCET, characters are given tertiary weights according to Table 17. The Decomposition Type is from the Unicode Character Database [UAX44]. The Case or Kana Subtype entry refers either to a case distinction or to a specific list of characters. The weights are from MIN = 2 to MAX = 1F16, excluding 7, which is not used for historical reasons.

Or from section 8.2:

Users often find asymmetric searching to be a useful option. When doing an asymmetric search, a character (or grapheme cluster) in the query that is unmarked at the secondary and/or tertiary levels will match a character in the target that is either marked or unmarked at the same levels, but a character in the query that is marked at the secondary and/or tertiary levels will only match a character in the target that is marked in the same way.

You may think I’m being snarky. I’m not at all. This document dives resolutely into the brambles and does not give up. It incidentally exposes just how complicated even the simplest of sorting tasks is when looked at in their full context, where that context is history, language, culture, and the ambiguity in which they thrive.

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July 26, 2014

Municipal nets, municipal electric power, and learning from history

The debate over whether municipalities should be allowed to provide Internet access has been heating up. Twenty states ban it. Tom Wheeler, the chair of the FCC, has said he wants to “preempt” those laws. Congress is maneuvering to extend the ban nationwide.

Jim Baller, who has been writing about the laws, policies, and economics of network deployment for decades, has found an eerie resonance of this contemporary debate. Here’s a scan of the table of contents of a 1906 (yes, 1906) issue of Moody’s that features a symposium on “Municipal Ownership and Operation.”

Scan of 1906 Moody's

Click image to enlarge

The Moody’s articles are obviously not talking about the Internet. They’re talking about the electric grid.

In a 1994 (yes, 1994) article published just as the Clinton administration (yes, Clinton) was developing principles for the deployment of the “information superhighway,” Jim wrote that if we want the far-reaching benefits foreseen by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (and they were amazingly prescient (but why can’t I find the report online??)), then we ought to learn four things from the deployment of the electric grid in the 1880s and 1890s:

First, the history of the electric power industry teaches that one cannot expect private profit-maximizing firms to provide “universal service” or anything like it in the early years (or decades) of their operations, when the allure of the most profitable markets is most compelling.

Second, the history of the electric power industry teaches that opening the doors to anyone willing to provide critical public services can be counterproductive and that it is essential to watch carefully the growth of private firms that enter the field. If such growth is left unchecked, the firms may become so large and complex that government institutions can no longer control or even understand them. Until government eventually catches up, the public may suffer incalculable injury.

Third, the history of the electric power industry teaches that monopolists will use all means available to influence the opinions of lawmakers and the public in their favor and will sometimes have frightening success

Fourth, and most important, the history of the electric power industry teaches that the presence or threat of competition from the public sector is one of the best and surest ways to secure quality service and reasonable prices from private enterprises involved in the delivery of critical public services.

Learn from history? Repeat it? Or intervene as citizens to get the history we want? I’ll take door number 3, please.

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Why I have not been blogging much: it’s my book’s fault and more

My blogging has gone way down in frequency and probably in quality. I think there are two reasons.

First, I’ve been wrapped up in trying to plot a new book. I’ve known for about three years the set of things I want to write about, but I’ve had my usual difficult time figuring out what the book is actually about. For example, when I was planning Everything is Miscellaneous, I knew that I wanted to write about the importance of metadata, but it took a couple of years to figure out that it wasn’t a book about metadata, or a book about the virtue of messiness, or two dozen other attempts at a top line.

I’m going through the same process now. The process itself consists of me writing a summary of each chapter. Except they’re not summaries. They’re like the article version of each chapter and usually work about to about 2,000 words. That’s because a chapter is more like a path than a list, and I can’t tell what’s on the path until I walk it. Given that I work for a living, each complete iteration can take me 2-3 months. And then I realize that I have it all wrong.

I don’t feel comfortable going through this process in public. My investment of time into these book summaries is evidence of how seriously I take them, but my experience shows that nineteen times out of twenty, what I thought was a good idea is a very bad idea. It’s embarrassing. So, I don’t show these drafts even to the brilliant, warm and forgiving Berkman Book Club — a group of Berkfolk writing books — not only because it’s embarrassing but because I don’t want to inflict 10,000 words on them when I know the odds are that I’m going to do a thorough re-write starting tomorrow. The only people who see these drafts are my literary agents and friends David Miller and Lisa Adams, who are crucial critics in helping me to see what’s wrong and right in what I’ve done, and working out the next approach.

Anyway, I’ve been very focused for the past couple of months on figuring out this next book. I think I’m getting closer. But I always think that.

The second reason I haven’t been blogging much: I’ve been mildly depressed. No cause for alarm. It’s situational and it’s getting better. I’ve been looking for a new job because the Harvard Library Innovation Lab that I’ve co-directed, with the fabulous Kim Dulin, for almost five years has been given a new mission. I’m very proud of what we — mainly the amazing developers who are actually more like innovation fellows — have done, and I’m very sorry to leave. Facing unemployment hasn’t helped my mood. There have been some other stresses as well. So: somewhat depressed. And that makes it harder for me to post to my blog for some reason.

I thought you might want to know, not that anyone cares [Sniffles, idly kicks at a stone in the ground, waits for a hug].

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July 24, 2014

Michelle Obama on working parents

In case anyone has forgotten what honesty sounds like:

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