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September 25, 2014

BoogyWoogy library browser

Just for fun, over the weekend I wrote a way of visual browsing the almost 13M items in the Harvard Library collection. It’s called the “BoogyWoogy Browser” in honor of Mondrian. Also, it’s silly. (The idea for something like this came out of a conversation with Jeff Goldenson several years ago. In fact, it’s probably his idea.)

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You enter a search term. It returns 5-10 of the first results of a search on the Library’s catalog, and lays them out in a line of squares. You click on any of the squares and it gets another 5-10 items that are “like” the one you clicked on … but you get to choose one of five different ways items can be alike. At the strictest end, they are other items classified under the same first subject. At the loosest end, the browser takes the first real word of the title and does a simple keyword search on it, so clicking on Fifty Shades of Gray will fetch items that have the word “fifty” in their titles or metadata.

It’s fragile, lousy code (see for yourself at Github), but that’s actually sort of the point. BoogyWoogy is a demo of the sort of thing even a hobbyist like me can write using the Harvard LibraryCloud API. LibraryCloud is an open library platform that makes library metadata available to developers. Although I’ve left the Harvard Library Innovation Lab that spawned this project, I’m still working on it through November as a small but talented and knowledgeable team of developers at the Lab and Harvard Library Technical Services are getting ready for a launch of a beta in a few months. I’ll tell you more about it as the time approaches. For example, we’re hoping to hold a hackathon in November.

Anyway, feel free to give BoogyWoogy a try. And when it breaks, you have no one to blame but me.

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August 9, 2013

[2b2k] Can Bezos beat 1:25?

I am a big fan of Reddit, as a reader, an occasional participant, and as an observer. As a reader, Reddit has gone downhill for me. Or perhaps I should say “as a lazy reader.” I don’t stray much from the home page which shows the top posts from a default set of sub-reddits, i.e., topically clustered posts. These days, there’s usual one post among the 25 on the home page that I find interesting in a way that matters, although maybe a half dozen I find click-worthy. Those half dozen are usually memes, or discussions of something in pop or Internet culture. The one in 25 that matters to me introduces me to an idea I hadn’t considered, with a discussion that goes pretty deeply into it — while always laced with glancing sub-threads and banter. But for a page that can be quickly skimmed, a 1:25 ratio is enough to bring me back several times a day.

One in 25 is probably about the ratio I find in The New York Times when I come upon a printed copy of it. That ratio goes higher if you count the sections that I skip entirely. For example, I apparently entirely lack the sports gene. The articles I read are usually ones that offer an interesting viewpoint on a topic I already care about, or that for some unpredictable reason stimulate my interest in something I didn’t know I cared about. I know this is very different from the behavior I’m supposed to exhibit. As a responsible citizen, I should be reading all the articles the paper tells me are important. But that’s how I am, that’s how I’ve always been, and I think it’s the way that most of us were even during the decades when reading the newspaper every day was our civic duty.

So, it worries me that Jeff Bezos may bring to the Washington Post the theory of reading that he has brought to Amazon. Amazon’s personalization works very well for me. The books it suggests are often in fact very appealing to me. It’s one reason I keep going back to Amazon. The suggestions don’t often take me far afield, but books are such a big investment of time and money that I don’t intuitively react against that. Intellectually I react against it, but my intuition and the finger that clicks the “buy” button don’t seem to mind at all.

Besides, I read most books as a matter of recreation. (Actually, that’s entirely false. In terms of numbers, I read most books as research that’s dictated by whatever project I’m working on. But we’re talking here about discretionary reading.) And here the Washington Post is different. We need it to help us learn what we need to know to be better citizens in a world that is increasingly inhospitable. A newspaper that works like Amazon would be intentionally creating a filter bubble, in Eli Pariser’s phrase. (And Eli Pariser’s book by that name is thoroughly worth reading, especially if you follow it up with Ethan Zuckerman’s Rewire.)

Bezos has a tremendous opportunity with the Washington Post. He can choose to restructure it so that it becomes the first truly networked newspaper, retaining the traditional virtues of a great newspaper while opening it up to the new virtues of our global participatory network. It can become a uniquely well-webbed supplier of news to the networked ecology, although the idea that any newspaper can “cover” all the “major” news has long ago gone pining for the fjords.

But this new webby news platform will miss the big chance to improve the ecosystem if Bezos applies to the Washington Post what he knows about personalization. The world doesn’t need another way to have our beliefs confirmed and our interests titilated. We don’t need The Daily Everyone Sucks But Us, and we really really don’t need The Washington Post and Sideboob.

What we instead need is personalization that doesn’t pander to our interests but expands them. That requires starting from where we are; posting lots of articles that are so outside our interests that we won’t read them won’t help. But the genius of Amazon’s personalization can be tuned so that we are presented with what pushes our interests forward without abandoning them. There’s lots of room for improvement in my current 1:25 ratio. In fact, there’s a statistical possibility of a 24x improvement.

We have billions of dollars’ worth of evidence that Jeff Bezos is one of the great business entrepreneurs of our era. But we also have good evidence that he has interests beyond maximizing corporate value. His taking the Washington Post private is a very good sign. I’m hopeful that something very good for us all is going to come out of his purchase — but only if Bezos can unlearn much of what Amazon has taught him about how to succeed.

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May 16, 2011

Ethan on serendipity and cosmopolitanism

Ethan Zuckerman blogs the brilliant and delightful “extended dance mix” of his talk on serendipity at CHI 2011.


He begins by wondering why people migrate to cities, even when those cities have been vastly unappealing, as per the stink of London in the mid 19th century. “You came to the city to become a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world.” You may still have encountered a tiny stretch of humanity that way, but you’d at least be in a position to receive information about the rest of the world. “To the extent that a city is a communications technology, it may not be a surprise that early literally portrayals of the internet seized on the city as a metaphor.”


Ethan wonders if cities actually do work as “serendipity engines,” as we hope they do. Nathan Eagle “estimates that he can predict the location of ‘low-entropy individuals’ with 90-95% accuracy” based on aggregated mobile phone records. [Marta C. Gonzalez, Cesar A. Hidalgo & Albert-Laszlo ? Barabasi recently in Nature made a related claim.] We are not as mobile as we think, and our patterns are more routinized than we’d like to believe. Even in cities we manage to mainly hang out with people like ourselves.


Likewise on the Net, Ethan says. He’s analyzed the media preferences of 33 nations, and found that countries that have 40+ million Net users tend to strongly prefer local news sources. The result is “we miss important stories.” Even if we are well-plugged in to a social network, we’re not going to learn about that which our friends do not know. Ethan reminds us that we need to worry about “filter bubbles,” as Eli Pariser calls them. While social filters are powerful, if they only filter your own network, they are likely to hide more than they show.


Against this Ethan recommends serendipity, which requires “an open and prepared mind.” We should learn from cities when designing Web spaces that enable and encourage serendipity. “What makes cities livable, creative, vital, and ultimately, safe is the street-level random encounter that [Jane] Jacobs documented in her corner of Greenwich Village.” Design to “minimize isolation.”


Ethan then talks about some of the ways we get guided serendipity in cities — friends showing you around, local favorites, treating a city like a board game via geocaching, etc. As always, Ethan has some amazing examples. (He even points to the Library Innovation Lab‘s ShelfLife project, where I work; I promise I didn’t realize that until I’d already started blogging about his post.)


I’d started blogging about Ethan’s post because I love what he says even though I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to much of what people say about serendipity on the Net. Ethan is different. His post represents a full-bodied conceptualization. I read it and I nod, smile at the next insight, then nod again. So, what follows is not a commentary on Ethan’s post. It’s actually all about my normal knee-jerk reaction. (Oh, bloggers, what _isn’t_ all about you?) I’m trying to understand why serendipity doesn’t square with the hole in my own personal pegboard.


Perhaps the problem is that I think of serendipity as a sub-class of distraction: Serendipity occurs when something that hijacks our attention (= a distraction) is worthwhile in some sense. We now have social networks that are superb at sharing serendipitous findings. So, why don’t we pass around more stuff that would make us more cosmopolitan? Fundamentally, I think it’s because interest is a peculiar beast. We generally don’t find something interesting unless it helps us understand what we already care about. But the Other — the foreign — is pretty much defined as that to which we see no connection. It is Other because it does not matter to us. Or, more exactly, we cannot see why or how it matters.

Things can matter to us in all sorts of ways, from casting a contrasting intellectual light on our everyday assumptions to opening up sluices of tears or laughter. But cosmopolitanism requires some level of understanding since it is (as I understand it) an appreciation of differences. That is, we can (and should) be filled with sorrow when we see a hauntingly disturbing photo of a suffering human in a culture about which we know nothing; that’s a connection based on the fundament of shared humanity, but it’s not yet cosmopolitanism. For that, we also have to appreciate the differences among us. Of course, appreciating differences also means finding the similarities. It is a dialectic for sure, and one so very easy to get wrong and impossible to get perfectly right: We misunderstand the Other by interpreting it too much in our own terms, or we write it off because it is so outside our own terms. Understanding always proceeds from a basic situatedness from which we make sense of our world, so cosmopolitan understanding is always going to be a difficult, imperfect dance of incorporating into the familiar that which is outside our usual ken.

This is why I don’t frame the failure of cosmopolitanism primarily in terms of serendipity. Serendipity sometimes — not in Ethan’s case — is proposed as a solution as if we can take our interest in the Other for granted: Just sneak some interesting African videos into our usual stream of youtubes of cute cats and people falling off of trampolines, and we will become more cosmopolitan. But, of course we will fast forward over those African videos as quickly as we used to turn the pages in newspapers that reported on Africa. The problem isn’t serendipity. It’s that we don’t care.

But, we can be brought to care. We know this because there are lots of examples (and Ethan recounts just a handful of the trove at his command) of our attention being arrested by cosmopolitan content. To generalize with a breadth that is sure to render the generalization vapid, cosmopolitan content that works — that gets us interested in something we hadn’t realized we cared about — seems to have two elements. First, it tells us what we need to know in order to let the otherness matter to us. Second, it is really well done. Both of these are difficult, and there is not a known formula for either of them. But there are also lots of known ways to try; Ethan gives us bunches of examples. Creating cosmopolitan content that works requires craft and, if it is to be transformative, art. It can range from the occasional Hollywood movie, to New Yorker articles, to blog posts, to Anthony Bourdain, to Ethan Zuckerman. Content that creates interest in itself may be extraordinarily difficult to craft, but it is a precusor to the possiblity of serendipity.

Take the wildly successful TED Talks as an example. They satisfy a need the “market” didn’t know it had, and if asked would probably deny: “Hey, do you have a burning interest in questioning the assumptions of bio-engineering?” TED Talks ripple through the social networks of serendipity because they create interest where formerly there wasn’t any. That’s how social serendipity works: It begins with works that through skill, craft, and art generate their own motive power. TED shows us that if we are trying to remedy the dearth of intellectually stimulating materials passing through social networks, we should worry first about creating materials that compel interest. Compelling materials create social serendipity. And the corollary: Nothing is interesting to us until it makes itself interesting to us.

But perhaps it simply comes down to this. Perhaps I don’t frame the failure of cosmopolitianism primarily as a problem with the lack of serendipity because I personally approach the world as a writer, and thus focus on the challenge of generating interest among readers. When I see people passing over a topic, I think, “Oh, it must not have been written well enough.” And on that idiosyncratic worldview, I would not seiously base an analysis of a topic as vast and important as the one that Ethan Zuckerman continues to address so profoundly.

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December 13, 2008

Ethanz on the danger of like loving like

No, Ethan Zuckerman has not come out against same sex marriage. Rather, the Christian Science Monitor has a perfectly wonderful article by Vijaysree Venkatraman about Ethan’s concern that we spend too much time on line reading that which confirms our views and hanging out with people like us. Nice photo of him as well…

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