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July 12, 2008

Mr. Dewey, tear down that wall!

Tim Spalding, founder of the estimable LibraryThing, is calling on us all to create an open shelves classification project to replace Dewey and his pals. LibraryThing is a brilliant implementation of a what a library built on a social network of readers can be, so I’m excited about Tim’s new idea.

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July 10, 2008

Support EFF’s FISA challenge

I am not as unhappy with the FISA bill as many of my friends are. But this bill needs to be challenged in court. For one thing — as others have pointed out — that the president told you to do something illegal doesn’t excuse you from it, if only because presidents don’t have the power to order you to do anything.

EFF is asking for donations for a court challenge. EFF’s budget is a dry cough in a thin hanky compared to the economic forces it’s fighting. Is it worth a few dollars to you to get this bill tested?


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June 25, 2008

Chase Bank credit cards: Incompetent or scammy?

I received two Chase Quicken Visa credit cards yesterday. Neither were numbers I currently hold. So, I called their support line.

They told me that my current Citi credit cards had been bought by Chase, and would expire as of June 29, even though they’re marked as continuing into 2010.

The support guy couldn’t answer the most basic questions, including which new card number mapped to which old card number. So, I got Citi on the line while I escalated the Chase call. With one support person in each ear, I discovered that my two Citi cards were not being transferred, but an old Citi Quicken card was. And what about that second Quicken account for which I had received a new card? The Chase person explained that this was a card for an account that I had closed two years ago.

Why did they send me a card for a closed account? The Chase person said it was done automatically. So, presumably, thousands of cards have gone out with no indication that they’re for closed accounts. Was it a simple mistake, is Chase hoping that we’ll call the 800 number listed on the sticker on the front, thus re-activating accounts we’d closed?

I have now canceled my every single Chase Quicken account. (I don’t even use Quicken any more.) And I’ve asked for an acknowledgment in writing that I have done so. [Tags: ]


June 24, 2008

Enterprise 2.0 in Germany: a podcast

The Berkman Center has posted a video (also available as an mp3) of me and Persephone Miel interviewing Willms Buhse and Tina Kulow. Willms is one of the editors of a German anthology, Enterprise 2.0: Die Kunst, loszulassen. (Disclosure: I contributed a chapter.) We talk about how Enterprise 2.0 is being received in Germany, given the inevitable cultural differences.

Unfortunately, because I insist on dressing like a 12 yr old going to summer camp, my polo shirt creates a hypnotic moire pattern, so please shield the eyes of your household pets.

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June 11, 2008

Are drugs too miscellaneous?

I think this public service announcement makes it pretty obvious which drugs are good and which are bad. Ones shot in black and white are bad, while brightly colored ones are good. [source] [Tags: ]


June 8, 2008

Hypercard lives!

Tilestack (in beta) runs Hypercard stacks and lets you create new ones.

I happened to have been at Apple’s press launch of Hypercard lo these many years ago, and built a couple of stacks, including one to introduce Interleaf’s gigantic (at the time) text-and-graphics system. Hypercard was a miracle of generativity: Drag and drop, link things up, learn how inheritance works, and, boom, you’ve got a clickable, words and pictures organism. Is there anything more exciting than discovering a new power to create?

(The Internet is Hypercard times gazillion. It’d be nice to keep it that way.)

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June 2, 2008

Plurk is not twitter

But plurk is more like Twitter than like a cheese log. For one thing, both plurk and twitter only allow 140-character posts. (Why that number? It’s not even a power of 2.) Plurk also enables some threading.

So, at the moment, I’m plurking. And twittering. And occasionally FaceBooking. And blogging. And overall successfully social networking myself around the work I’m supposed to be doing. [Tags: ]


May 29, 2008

The Wikipedia style

Mark Bauerlein has a terrific piece in The Chronicle of Higher Ed that compares the flat style of Wikipedia to that of other encyclopedias. It suffers from taking a single example — the entry on Moby-Dick — but it rings true. At least for some of Wikipedia.

Mark is undoubtedly right that Wikipedia’s stylistic flatness is due in part to the fact that professional writers often write better than amateurs and crowds do. But, it also seems likely to result from Wikipedia’s commitment to neutrality. Perhaps in the process of constructing this article together, the color was driven out as non-neutral.

Of course, we can find out by checking the article’s history. But, there is a complicating factor: The section of the Wikipedia entry Mark cites is the first paragraph of the article. It attempts to characterize the novel as a whole, whereas the passages from the other encyclopedias seem to be introducing Ahab in particular. So, for an apples-to-apples comparison, here is the Ahab section in the current Wikipedia entry:

Ahab is the tyrannical captain of the Pequod who is driven by a monomaniacal desire to kill Moby-Dick, the whale that maimed him on his last whaling voyage. A Quaker, he seeks revenge in defiance of his religion’s well-known pacifism. Ahab’s name comes directly from the Bible (see 1 Kings 18-22).

Little information is provided about Ahab’s life prior to meeting Moby-Dick, although it is known that he was orphaned at a young age. When discussing the purpose of his quest with Starbuck it is revealed that he first began whaling at eighteen and has continued in the trade for forty years, having spent less than three on land. He also mentions his “girl-wife” whom he married late in life, and their young son, but does not give their names.

In Ishmael’s first encounter with Ahab’s name, he responds “When that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood?” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 16).[10]

Ahab ultimately dooms the crew of the Pequod (excluding Ishmael) to death by his obsession with Moby-Dick. During the final chase, Ahab hurls his final harpoon while yelling his now-famous revenge line:

. . . to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.

The harpoon becomes lodged into Moby-Dick’s flesh and Ahab, caught in his own harpoon’s rope and unable to free himself, is dragged into the cold oblivion of the sea with the injured whale. The whale eventually destroys the longboats and crew, and sinks the Pequod.

Ahab has the qualities of a tragic hero — a great heart and a fatal flaw — and his deeply philosophical ruminations are expressed in language that is not only deliberately lofty and Shakespearian, but also so heavily iambic as often to read like the Bard’s own pentameters.

It’s not clear to me that this writing is substantially worse than the positive examples Mark quotes. It could stand some line editing, but it’s not particularly bland.

Nevertheless, Mark may well be right that overall, Wikipedia is written more flatly than commercial encyclopedias. That would not be a surprising effect of the quest for neutrality. For example, the Moby-Dick article started in September, 2001, with just a few lines. On July 14, 2004, the plot and symbolism sections were still entirely blank. By October 5, 2007, the following passage is in the symbolism section:

The Pequod’s quest to hunt down Moby-Dick itself is also widely viewed as allegorical. To Ahab, killing the whale becomes the ultimate goal in his life, and this observation can also be expanded allegorically so that the whale represents everyone’s goals. Furthermore, his vengeance against the whale is analogous to man’s struggle against fate. The only escape from Ahab’s vision is seen through the Pequod’s occasional encounters with other ships, called gams. Readers could consider what exactly Ahab will do if he, in fact, succeeds in his quest: having accomplished his ultimate goal, what else is there left for him to do? Similarly, Melville may be implying that people in general need something to reach for in life, or that such a goal can destroy one if allowed to overtake all other concerns. Some such things are hinted at early on in the book, when the main character, Ishmael, is sharing a cold bed with his newfound friend, Queequeg:

This writing is indeed pedestrian. For example, the hedge phrases, “widely viewed as” and “can also be expanded” vitiate it. To which I have three replies:

1. These flatfooted reminders that interpretations are not universally shared are in fact salubrious for readers and other students. 2. The article was revised hundreds of times after this. 3. Yes, Wikipedia’s style often isn’t as muscular or punchy as that of commercial encyclopedias aimed at family usage. Sometimes — perhaps even often, although with 2 million articles, it’s hard to be certain — its style could be improved. And should be. But there is also a useful and scholarly humility in a reference work that is written plainly. [Tags: ]


May 27, 2008

Moral games

Gene Koo sets up the problem: We are wired to react morally to the people we see, but we have trouble extending that to people at a distance. Yet, we have to broaden our moral embrace if we are to make it through another century. So, Gene wonders whether games might help:

Computer games offer at least two possible responses to our collective human predicament. First, they can open players’ eyes to the moral implications of systems by experimenting with them and witnessing the results. Games might offer moments of reflection and of epiphany, connecting personal morality with systemic awareness. A player might see how tweaking health care policies affects a family’s lives, or how environmental regulation could shape the destiny of a polar bear. Games might lead people to begin to see a soul within the machine.

And perhaps systems might begin to learn lessons from game design. Why must the computer systems that exercise more and more control over our daily lives be morally inert? If computer games — mere software — can lead players to weep, perhaps the mechanization of our world needn’t be soulless…

Gene’s not saying that games will save us. He’s suggesting that morally designed games might help.

So, before you point to all the games that seem to abrade our conscience — Grand Theft Auto, just about every first person shooter ever made, even PacMan if you look at it from the point of view of the dots — you might want to note that The Sims has sold 100 million copies.

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May 19, 2008

The worst director in the world?

The NY Times has an interesting article about Uwe Boll, whom many consider to be the worst director working. I’ve only seen BloodRayne, which is laughably cliched and wildly incompetent. The top half of the graduating class of Emerson College (whose commencement is today … good luck, kids!) has to be better at the basic story-telling techniques than Boll is.

Still, it’s hard to call Boll the worst director in the world when this guy is still making movies. Have you seen Alexander?

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