Joho the Blogexperts Archives - Page 2 of 2 - Joho the Blog

December 27, 2009

[2b2k] First draft of first chapter sort of done

[NOTE: These posts tagged “2b2k’ (Too Big to Know”) are about the process of writing a book. They therefore talk about the ideas in the book rather incidentally..]

It’s not quite right to say that I’ve finished a first draft of chapter one. More accurately: I’ve stopped typing and have gone back to the beginning. It needs so much work that it doesn’t even constitute a draft.

I read it to our son last night as he trotted on the elliptical trainer in the basement. He thought it’s better than I do, but that’s why we have families. He also offered useful comments: Opening with a recitation of factoids about the growth of info has been done (although he professed to find it amusing); I say three or four times too often that the basics of knowledge are changing; it wasn’t entirely clear how the idea of information overload has gone from a psychological syndrome to a cultural challenge. All too true.

Hearing it out loud helps a lot; I always read drafts of chapters to my wife. I realized, for example, that the long (too long) section on the history of facts adopts an off-putting academic tone. That doesn’t worry me, because adjusting the tone is a normal part of re-writing, although it does require the painful removal of “good stuff” that actually isn’t very interesting. I remain quite concerned about the overall structure, and, worse, whether the chapter is clear in its readerly aims.

So, I’m going to put in a new opening. Although the technique is overdone and predictable, I will probably start with some very quick examples intended to show that knowledge is becoming networked. Then I will tighten the section on information overload, which aims at suggesting that knowledge overload results in a change in the nature of knowledge (in a way that info overload did not change the nature of info). Then, into the reduced section on the history of facts, which aims to challenge our notion that knowledge is a building that depends on having a firm foundation. (I also want to shake the reader by the shoulders and say that the idea of knowledge is not as obvious and eternal as we’ve thought.)

Also, I changed the title of Chapter One yesterday, from “Undoing Knowledge” to “The Great Unnailing.”

And, this morning, while on the ol’ elliptical, I read a review of Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice, which, because of its discussion of the inevitability of disagreements, seems like it might be relevant. A few paces on, it also seemed to me that a suitable ending for the book might be a brief section that asks: If we didn’t have a concept of knowledge, would we now invent one? Is that concept still useful? I mean something inchoate by this, for clearly it is useful to distinguish between reliable and unreliable ideas. But that’s always a matter of degree. Would we separate out a special class of specially reliable information, and, more to the point, would we think of it as a realm of truth, a mirror of nature, or our highest calling? I think not. But I don’t know if this is an idea with which to open the book, close the book, or ignore.

3 Comments »

December 14, 2009

New book starting … Now!

I’m uncomfortable blogging this, but, what the heck.

I officially started writing a book today. It’s called “Too Big to Know” (with a subtitle to be determined). It’ll be published by Basic Books. My manuscript is due on Sept. 30, 2010.

“Officially started” means that I rolled a new piece of paper into my word processor — with the subsidiary decision to use Pages as my word processor — and created a folder called “Chapt 1.” Quite a ceremony.

I’m not yet sure how much of the writing I’m willing to do in public. I wrote Small Pieces Loosely Joined that way, but I enjoyed writing Everything Is Miscellaneous with the door closed, so to speak.

Anyway, I don’t want to talk about the book. In part, it’s embarrassment at the audacity of thinking I can write a book on some topic, as if I knew something. (Hint: I don’t.) In part, it’s superstition — talk about what you’re going to write, and the magic writing beans won’t sprout. In part, it’s because for me writing, at the most basic level of sawing planks and planing edges, goes best with nothing distracting me from the day’s stretch of emptiness.

12 Comments »

October 24, 2009

FCC’s Net Neutrality discussion board

The FCC has put up a site — openinternet.gov — where anyone (after registering with a valid email address) can post an idea, or vote existing ideas up or down. I love the idea of the feds opening discussions up, although, I am not convinced that this particular implementation achieves its presumed aims. But, what the heck! Try-fail-try is the right rhythm for the Net.

The site defaults to listing the ideas reverse chronologically, which adds some serendipity, or you can choose to view them listed in order of popularity, which encourages piling on. You can also browse by category/tag.

Anyone who registers can post a comment. The comments are unthreaded, discouraging much development of ideas but also discouraging flaming. You can report a comment as being “abusive,” but otherwise cannot rate them.

At the moment, the most popular posting is from Tim Karr, who, according to his biography at SaveTheInternet.com, a site sponsored by FreePress.net, “oversees all Free Press campaigns and online outreach efforts, including SavetheInternet.com.” Tim — who I know a bit and like — is an activist. He has the most popular post at the FCC’s site presumably because FreePress.net sent out a mailing urging supporters to vote it up.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s how politics is played in this country. If an anti-NN group sponsored by, say, AT&T wanted to play the same game, it’s perfectly entitled to. It’s not hard to imagine a well-funded group swamping FreePress’s shoestring efforts and getting orders of magnitudes more people to thumbs-up an anti-NN comment.

Which is to say that an open discussion board like the one the FCC has posted can serve either of two purposes. It can be a place where people come for rational discussions across political positions, or it can serve as an informal poll of citizens’ sentiments about an issue. But combining the two means that neither works very well. It becomes simply an opportunity for gaming the system.

It seems to me that sites such as these cannot serve as a poll that has any value at all. Besides, we have lots of other ways of gauging public opinion, including scientific polling and elections. If, on the other hand, the FCC wants to sponsor a forum for useful discussion or to generate new ideas, it could modify the current implementation. For example — and these are just ideas that may turn out to be gigantic belly flops — comments could be divided into two tracks, pro and con, with most-popular listings for each. Readers could be allowed to vote up but not down. Comments could be threaded. The comments could be rated. Postings could have buttons for “agree/disagree” and “interesting,” so that the site could highlight articles that people disagree with but find interesting.

All of these techniques could be gamed because everything can be gamed. Some discussion boards do work, though. I don’t know what the magic keys are, but I’m pretty confident that a political discussion board that includes an overall popularity contest will so encourage gaming that its results will necessarily be unreliable. At the very least, the popularity contest should be confined to determining the best arguments for each side.

But I don’t want to close on a negative note, for the FCC is to be congratulated on its efforts to open its processes up not only to lobbyists and geeks who know how to walk and talk like an FCC commenter, but to the general public. And it’s doing so in the proper Webby way of taking small steps and not being afraid to fail in public. That takes guts.

1 Comment »

October 11, 2009

Net uncovers new type of cloud

There are reports of a new type of cloud, one that is not currently in the official International Cloud Atlas. Or, possibly, it is a formation that’s been around forever, but the scattered reports are only now coalescing thanks to the Net.

According to Amazon’s review of Richard Hamblyn’s The Invention of Clouds, we only began thinking clouds could be categorized in 1802 when Luke Howard started giving public lectures. The very idea that clouds — the paradigm of uncatchable — could be divided into groups was (apparently) fascinating and thrilling. (Lamarck had also categorized clouds, but it didn’t catch on.)

A quick googly scan makes it seem that the cloud taxonomy is pretty messy. For example, the University of Illinois’ “cloud types” page lists four broad categories, and a list of miscellaneous clouds, each of which is categorized under one of the four basic types, evoking a “Huh?” reaction from at least one of us. The cloud taxonomy page at Univ. Missouri-Columbia lists eight types. Do you categorize by what they look like, how high they are, what they do (rain or not?), which celebrity profiles they resemble …? Categorizing clouds is truly a Borgesian task.

And, dammit, wouldn’t you know? Here’s a poem by Jorge Luis Borges called: “Clouds (II)” (with the line-endings probably removed):

Placid mountains meander through the air, or tragic cordilleras cast a pall, overshadowing the day. They are what we call clouds. And their shapes are often strange and rare. Shakespeare observed one once. It seemed to be a dragon. That one cloud of an afternoon still kindles in his words and blazes down, so that we go on seeing it today. What are the clouds? An architecture of chance? Perhaps they are the necessary things from which God weaves his vast imaginings, threads of a web of infinite expanse. Maybe the cloud is emptiness returning, just like the man who watches it this morning.

(translated by Richard Barnes. B; Robert Mezey; Richard Barnes. “Clouds (II). (poem).” The American Poetry Review. World Poetry, Inc. 1996. HighBeam Research. 11 Oct. 2009 v)

More Borges poems

2 Comments »

September 18, 2009

The temptation of stories

Journalism at its best is a way to uncover and communicate the truth, subject to all the usual human limitations. But journalism’s fundamental form, the story itself, brings a special temptation to manipulate the truth for economic or aesthetic reasons. The temptation is resistible to varying degrees, depending on the type of story (the temptations are greater for feature stories than for hard-core reportage of the day’s events), the nature of the journal, and the standing of journalist. Nevertheless, the temptation is there, built into the form itself.

The very idea that there’s a story is itself a temptation. Maybe the story is on Facebook addiction or the rise in incivility. A journalist who goes back to her editor and says, “Nope, no story there” has disappointed the editor who now has to find another story to fill the hole in the paper newspaper or to feed the maw of the online publication. Not a big deal; it happens all the time. But if it’s fifth consecutive time that the reporter says there was no story there, it’s getting to be a problem. If it’s the reporter who has suggested the stories in the first place, as is often the case at many publications, she will be judged a failure because she’s wasted her time and gummed up the editor’s planning.

It’s not like it’s supposed to be in science, where a failed hypothesis is as valuable as a proved one, even though of course every scientist would rather discover that a new compound cures cancer than that it doesn’t. A failed hypothesis in the world of journalism is a story that won’t run, that won’t bring in readers, that won’t give businesses a page on which to place an ad. There are real prices to stories failing to pan out. Reporters are thus tempted to make the story work.

Even when the hypothesis of a story is true, journalists almost always reach a place in the story where they know what they want their interviewees to say. An interview is requested of a particular person to provide the “some experts disagree” statement or the “the implications of this are vast” verbiage. If that person doesn’t provide it, someone else will. Depending on the stage of the story, the interviewee may spark interest in a side issue or an approach the reporter hadn’t considered…resulting in someone else being called to provide the other side or the amplification.

This happens at some of stage of the story even when the topic is interesting no matter what storyline it takes. For example, the death of Pat Tillman is interesting because it is instantly symbolic: Football star turns down a life of fame and wealth in order to defend his country, and dies a soldier’s death in Afghanistan. Beyond the basic reportage the day that it happened, it was bound to inspire journalistic stories. A reporter could enter with an open mind. Even so, she’ll enter with an open mind looking for an angle, which is to say, looking for a story. Is it a relatively simple narrative of an inspiring patriot who gave his life to support his ideals? Or was there “more” to it? That search for the “more” isn’t simply a hunt for unknown truths. It’s a search for a narrative that reveals the simple surface to be a veneer from which we will learn something unexpected. The reporter may have no idea what the more is, but once she gets a hint of it, she’ll be on it, and the narrative itself — if not personal ambition — will carry her forward. Maybe Tillman wasn’t as virtuous as we thought. Maybe his death wasn’t as straightforward as we were told. Maybe his story was of a life fulfilled or of a life wasted or of a life more complex than we’d thought. Maybe it’s about the government’s cynical use of him, or of the media’s own eagerness to find a hero. But something will emerge. And as it emerges, it gathers its story around it, and the reporter is off looking for the voices who will play certain roles in the story. Why? Because the story demands it.

At the very least, the temptation journalistic stories is that of all story-telling, the basic way we humans make sense of our world. Stories, not just in journalism, are about the gradual revealing of truth. The surface wasn’t as it seemed. The ending was contained, hidden, in the beginning. What looked continuous was in fact disruptive. Stories have a shape, and story-tellers fit the pieces into that shape. There’s nothing wrong with that, except in an environment where there’s economic and social pressure to produce a story. Then the temptation is to get the pieces to fit. And that can corrode the truth.

So can the simple fact that stories tend towards closure. They end. They’re done. Some circle of understanding has been drawn and closed, tip to tip. The story says, simply by ending. “This is what you needed to know.” There can often be truth in that, but there is always falsity in it. The world, its events, and its people escape even the best of stories.

Stories are not going away from journalism, just as they’re not going away from history, biography, or how we talk about our day over dinner. They’re fundamental. Stories are how we understand, but they also inevitably are constructions, incomplete, and organized around a point of view. All stories are temptations. Journalistic stories have their own special and strong temptations because of their economics and because of the nature of the medium in which they’ve been embodied. Now those economics and that medium are changing, diminishing the old temptations but creating new ones:

::: Because we are increasingly turning to publications that explicitly take a stand, the temptation to include false views for “balance” is diminished. But, the preference for partisan media creates a new temptation: To over-state, in order to attract attention. [Guilty as charged!]

::: The old medium limited the length of stories, forcing unnecessary trimming except in very special circumstances. The new medium has infinite space so that stories can be right-sized. But it turns out that prolixity discourages on-line readers, so the new temptation is toward brevity. It’s not clear if that’s an expression of an impatience that’s always been with us or if the new medium constitutes a new temptation.

::: The old medium’s inability to embed links encouraged journalists to try to encapsulate the world in a single column of text. The new hyperlinked medium can tempt authors to gloss over points and contradictions because they’ve put in some links, putting the burden on readers who are (usually) lazier than the writers.

::: The economics of the old medium tempted publications to appear valuable by being a reliable source of the single truth. While they of course have encouraged discourse on controversial topics, their bread and butter have been stories that “get it right” and thus serve as a stopping point for belief. Stories are the bulwark of authority, and authority is the currency of the old journalistic economics. The new medium now can include as many stories as we want, from as many different points of view, connected by curators above the stories and by hyperlinks within the stories. The story no longer has to tell the whole truth. It’s just one of the stories. But, while that’s true of the ecosystem as a whole, the old temptation to be a single-source truth shop exists for individual online publications, whether they’re commercial or personal.

Now, the form I’ve adopted for this essay, which is itself a type of story-telling, is one of balance: Old temptations matched by new temptations. It’s a form that aims at inspiring trust: “See, I’m presenting both sides!” And that itself can be corrosive. Indeed, in this case it is. While the old temptations are being replaced by new ones, the locus of truth is moving decisively from individual stories and publications to the network of stories and publications. The balancing of temptations misses this most important change. The hyperlinked context of stories creates not only new temptations to go wrong, but a greater possibility for going right.

8 Comments »

July 2, 2009

The government is the new Google

a href=”http://www.buzzmachine.com/”>Jeff Jarvis led a discussion at PDF among 1,000 people about what government could learn from Google, and, more generally, what a bunch of techies would do to make government better. Jeff’s got this rare cross of skills as a writer, teacher, entertainer and provoker. If you haven’t seen him at work, you should grab the next opportunity. And, yes, Jeff is a friend, so I’m biased. But I’m also right.

So, here’s a way the government is becoming like Google. Remember how a few years ago, Google was grabbing the best and the brightest techies of every stripe? Every time you turned around, someone else you admired had moved there. Now the same thing is happening with the federal government. It’s the glamorous place many of the best and the brightest — including some from Google — want to work. The government is becoming a center of innovation. It may not be as wild as the garages of Silicon Valley and the Charles River, but it’s dreaming big and its heart is pure. These positions are being filled with the diametric opposites of lobbyists. It’s pretty amazing.

Note to self: Re-read The Best and the Brightest to see if there are lessons for the new federal techies.

Tags:

4 Comments »

June 29, 2009

[pdf09] Mayor Bloomberg rides the Skype

Mayor Bloomberg skypes in, slightly Max Headroomy. He touts NYC’s e-ness. Info is key to good mgt. #311. Five new initiatives:

1. 311 has a skype account (NYC 311)
2. Twitter: @311nyc

3. 311 online via nyc.gov
4. Tracking the stats to improve the service. E.g., with Google see what services people are most searching for.
5. New annual competition — Big Apps [clever] — to challenge us to come up with new ways to use data at nyc.gov. E.g., someone should make an iPhone app to check out the cleanliness grades of restaurants (which now will also be posted in restaurant windows).

[Tags: ]

Comments Off on [pdf09] Mayor Bloomberg rides the Skype

May 17, 2009

WolframAlpha’s big problem

After a day of poking at the awesome WolframAlpha and watching some of the reactions around the Web, a major problem has emerged. WA is fantastic if it has what you’re looking for. But if it doesn’t, it looks like it’s failed, as in: “What? It can’t tell me how much energy it would take to move Henry VIII one kilometer, expressed in cheeseburger-calories? What a piece of crap!”

Google doesn’t have this problem. If you get no hits, it’s almost always because you’ve so egregiously mistyped something that no one else on the planet has ever posted anything with that same typo. Or, it’s because you’ve put an odd phrase in quotes, which requires taking the special action of, well, putting things in quotes. Almost always, Google succeeds at what it does (find pages that contain particular text), even when it fails at doing what you want (find a particular answer).

WolframAlpha, on the other hand, is like a roomful of idiot savants. Each knows a scary amount about a topic. And, unlike a such a roomful, WA also knows how to recombine and compute what each of the savants knows. But if the room doesn’t have the savant you’re looking for, you get back nothing but a “Huh?”

The eclecticism of WolframAlpha is its selling point. But the delight that it knows things you would never have guessed at means that you can have trouble guessing what it knows about. The question is whether general users will go back enough times to be trained on the sorts of questions it can answer. If not, WA will remain an awesome tool for specialists but will not become the broad, general-purpose tool it wants to be.

It would, however, be a completely awesome addition to Google…a path I suspect Stephen Wolfram does not want to take.

[Tags: ]

10 Comments »

May 11, 2009

Smart and secure grids and militaries

The Wired.com piece I wrote about Robin Chase prompted Andrew Bochman to send me an email. Andy is an MIT and DC energy tech guy (and, it turns out, a neighbor) who writes two blogs: The Smart Grid Security Blog and the DoD Energy Blog. Neither of these topics would make it into my extended profile under “Interests,” but I found myself sucked into them (confirming my rule of thumb that everything is interesting if look at in sufficient detail). So many things in the world to care about!

[Tags: ]

2 Comments »

February 28, 2009

When search and replace goes wrong

ExpertWitness.com lists experts willing to testify in court for you, for a pretty penny. It’s got over 1,000 categories, including experts in gates, loading docks, and well logging. Click on a category and you go to a page that begins with an explanation. For example, here’s the explanation for the category “exercise equipment”:

Exercise equipment is any object used in exercise. This can include balls, treadmills, weights, bicycles, track shoes, jungle gyms, or protective equipment such as a back brace. An exercise machine is any machine used in exercise. These range from simple spring-like devices to computerized electromechanical rides to recirculating-stream swimming pools

Pretty straightforward. But the rather self-referential category of “Expert Referrals” seems to have snarled the system:

Find referrals Expert Referrals experts and consultants for referrals Expert Referrals litigation support. Available to be referrals Expert Referrals expert witnesses and provide referrals Expert Referrals forensic consulting in referrals Expert Referrals litigation, in addition prepare referrals Expert Referrals expert witness reports for use in deposition and/or in-court trial testimony.

A global search-and-replace or mailmerge on boilerplate gone wrong? (Try replacing “referrals Expert Referrals” with, say, “exercise equipment.”)

[Tags: ]

Comments Off on When search and replace goes wrong

« Previous Page