10 December 2008

Facilitating the Conversation

I was prompted by something Andrew Shafer of Reductive Labs said (on the FooCampers list, so I won't reproduce it here, since it was forwarded to me) about the quality of communication among software developers. He was talking about how communicating the overall design and intentions of the project is vital, so the developers are not left guessing about how the application will be used and what its architects think it should do. What is important is the existence of a conversation between the leaders of a project and the developers writing the code. This hits very close to home, because our farmfoody.org project is essentially there to improve the flow of information between producers and consumers of food, to enable a conversation.

It occurred to me the solution is to throw away the flash cards and bulleted design specifications and just facilitate the conversation. Why not use social networking tools for developers to communicate? (You can get a sense of another approach from his post Working Together… with Techology). This sounds like an amazing experience using software much like the "multiplayer" networked text editors (SubEthaEdit) that have cropped up in recent years that let a group of connected people edit a text document .

An equivalent of Twitter for programmers would be interesting. A social activity and message feed to keep everyone in the loop. Why not post messages about activity into a feed. This already happens with users signed up to version control services (like Assembla or Sourceforge), but through email. It needs to be through a unified social feed or "wall" some call them, where notifications about code commits, coding activities, etc. can be distributed to a group of "friends" or "followers" of the thread of development. Instead of each project posting a feed, each developer would post a feed. Or perhaps both, with users being able to "follow" a project and also keep up with "friend" developers, which could cut across projects. The latter would be useful because it would help developers keep an eye on allied projects or perhaps a mainstream of code their project fits into, merely by adding that project or an individual developer from the project to their friends (or perhaps they would be "fans" of the project to keep personal friends separate...the terminology doesn't matter).

It should be very possible to build a social "stack" on top of existing "pastebin" applications to achieve this.

09 December 2008

Use of Detail in Novel, Haiku and Photograph

I was thinking about the difference between novel writing and haiku poetry. In a novel, detail is included, in a haiku, detail is omitted, except for those exquisite details that distill from the experience to represent it.

The advice to writers is to write what you know. A novel or haiku starts with a preexisting experience, something from the life of the writer or from an intense experience ("haiku moment," which is distinct from just having an idea or taking one from memory), which is like a photograph. The haiku may be more photographic than the novel, since the novel requires the author generate much more of the picture. In haiku, the reader supplies half of the picture. This is like painting compared to photography, where each begins with the scene, but the camera captures the scene and the painter generates the scene. Each process may be equivalent, since the photographer manipulates the scene through the camera in much the same way the painter manipulates the scene naturally through the process of constructing the image. One just requires more skill at capture time than the other, the camera instantaneous and automatic, the painter lengthy and detailed.

Setting out to write a novel, the author must collect experiences in the smallest detail for inclusion in the story. A novel would be painfully brief if it were not for rich detail filling the pages. The novelist must pay attention to how people speak, the language they use in conversation, the detail in the world around them, like a reporter, recording detail for use in the novel. It is said Steinbeck used reports from a government official detailing the conditions of people living in camps as source material for his novel.

The haiku writer needs to cut down the details, from the uncounted numbers filling the poet's surroundings, to just those expressing the experience. Many details are left for the reader to fill in, which can make haiku from another time or place opaque.

In photography, interestingly, detail is an artistic problem. The camera records the scene with an unblinking eye, including things running counter to our photographic idea. It records with greater detail than the eye, in some sense "possessing" the subjects. Detail that comments on or is contrary to the subject or intention of the photographer is called "subversive detail" and is sometimes the bane of photographers or may be beneficial. Think of taking a picture of a magnificent cathedral with a line of garbage trucks on the street in front. This is a classic example. The lowly trucks create a cognitive dissonance with the soaring cathedral. Whether they should be included or not, is a question. Should the photograph remind us of the connection between the gritty realities of life or should it lift our emotions up to the heavens? Both are possible intentions. Street photographers frequently use subversive detail to enhance their photographs, the classic example being persons on the street appearing to interact with or be watched by persons on posters or advertisements (as well as the irony of the subject of one photograph interacting with the subject of another). Subversive detail gives rich layers to photographs and can be exploited to make comments on the subject.

It is fascinating how questions of detail emerge in three art forms, prose, poetry and photography.

06 December 2008

MuseScore

I am trying out MuseScore (http://musescore.org), an open source, free software for music composition and notation printing. It is the most robust and full featured of the open source music editors. It has a few bugs and some way to go before its features threaten the commercial competition, but it looks promising.

I like the way it displays the score as a big page you can move around by dragging. I am still using an older version of Cakewalk, and it drives me crazy scrolling horizontally to read a song lyric. With MuseScore I can read music as if it were printed on a sheet of paper without scrolling. In Cakewalk, I get lost scrolling through the score, but in MuseScore I can immediately see where I am.

Using Cakewalk's linear display it is difficult to compare measure to measure in a song. If I want to compare the melody in the fourth measure of the second verse to the melody in the fourth measure of the first verse, I must furiously scroll back and forth. Or print the score out for easy comparison.

03 December 2008

Connecting Farms to Eaters

I've discovered local food and connecting producers to consumers came up at the WhereCamp earlier this year. I thought with the growing interest in theorizing about local food and connecting eaters to the people who grow their food, I'd gather up some links here.

You can download a PDF filled with some of my early theorizing (I'm revising my "manifesto" but have not finished, for release at next year's season). It is available as a PDF Farm Foody: A Social Network Connecting Independent Farms to People presenting my rationale for how the social network benefits the family farm and society. My vision of "leveraging the network" as a way of helping small farms compete in a big agriculture economy falls not far from the idea of "How do we create an incentive system stronger than the federal incentive system?" asked by the WhereCampers. You can read about their ideas in a wiki summarizing the discussion.

Food Talk at Wherecamp 2008

When we started brainstorming and developing farmfoody.org two years ago, we understood it had to be easy for farmers to use, not take up a lot of their time, and had to offer utility. I am currently in the middle of a development cycle ready to release what I call a "social feed" and other sites refer variously to as a "wall" (Tom likes to think of it as a "barn wall") enabling and encouraging members of our social network to interact with each other in small, ad hoc social groups.

There are some other sites out there beginning to combine mapping, farms and food. We wish them good luck in their endeavor.

25 October 2008

More Thoughts on Technology and New Visual Journalism

I truly believe there is potential for creation of an online media publishing system centered around the style of visual journalism cameras like the G1 can create. The rhythm of shifting from video to still photography in the hands of a capable, creative visual journalist, could be expressed through an architecture and presentation suited to it. The combination of video and still images have the potential to create in the viewer a sense of surroundings, a picture of the whole event, seen two different ways.

The mix of still and video is suited to the idea of "quick-slow" development, where first captures can be uploaded for rapid presentation with little or no information and then later, more images can be added, stories added to flesh out the first blush images. Video can be edited to explain and give context to the event or stories can be added to give context to the visuals. The combinations are endless, given a sufficiently flexible system.

Brief posts of video or stills can flow onto a stream of consciousness, blog-like, photostream-like, until there is time to reflect on the event, compose stories to give context and explain the images by adding them later. The needs of journalism, immediacy and reflection are met.

By the way, I feel that Flickr represents, not a "photo sharing" phenomena, but a "photo looking" one, which essentially fulfills the function of the great picture magazines, Life and Look. The popularity of Flickr, I believe, is due to the same phenomena, an audience who enjoys learning about the world and getting their information visually.

Panasonic G1: A Camera for the New Journalism?

I am very excited about the Micro Four-Thirds format and the G1 camera from Panasonic. I have not decided whether I will purchase one or not, since my decision depends on the specifications and performance of the lenses. I am intrigued by the possibility of mounting the 7-14 ultra wide angle Panasonic has in their roadmap. It could make one of the most compact, lightweight and portable ultra wide angle kits to be found in any camera system. The 4/3 sensor size and lens design could provide very good edge sharpness for UWA work.

I truly believe the G1 (and G1 with HD video) could be an online journalist's dream machine. With its articulating LCD and Live View, it can easily move between video and still photography. It is extremely small and lightweight, perfect for carrying all day or unobtrusive photography. The twisty LCD and live view means images can be had from all angles and heights. It is the perfect combination for online photo and video journalism once it can shoot HD video. This camera would be a great way to record events and then quickly upload both video and stills for distribution online, through media sites, blogs or social networks.

Not only does it promise to be a camera for the new journalism, it has the potential to satisfy creative photographers wanting to work with legacy optics. With the right set of adaptors the m4/3 cameras may be able to mount a greater variety of lenses from different manufacturers going back a half century of lens production than any other format in the history of photography. And it may very well do it with better quality.

The EVF promises quick and critical focusing for manually focused legacy lenses. I hope it will be simple to navigate the frame, choose a focus point, click a button and zoom in 10x for critical manual focus, then click and zoom back out for composition before tripping the shutter. Currently, most digital SLRs and terrible at manual focusing because of their small viewfinders, lack of focusing aids and autofocus orientation. The G1 could be a manual focus dream.

As the image quality of the electronic viewfinder improves, I believe they will come to replace optical viewfinders. I hope to see viewfinders with "heads up" displays offering live histograms superimposed upon the scene as well as other information, selectable at a touch of a button, just as the rear LCD screen offers today. Who needs autofocus and old fashioned exposure meters when you have live zoom and a live histogram? Well, maybe that's not for everyone, but it would make a cool camera for photographers who like to drive their cameras the way driving enthusiasts drive their sports cars.

I am very interested in the possibilities m4/3 opens up for the new journalism. In concert with all the new photo sharing, microblogging and social media websites, this category of camera could really add up to something revolutionary. I envision there may be online tools created just to suit the kind of journalism made possible by compact, hybird still/video cameras, the first of which is represented by the G1. We are not talking about taking still captures from a video camera as an afterthought, but a tool specifically designed to operate in both regiemes, easy to take anywhere, use any time by any citizen journalist, the captures ready for distribution through the network. The output of both video and still images from the same event, captured as the journalist thinks appropriate, create the potential for a new kind of presentation and visual narrative. We may see the rise of online versions of the great photo magazines Look and Life, where generations learned about the world through pictures before television chased them from the newstands.

(Some links: Panasonic, AnandTech, Imaging Resource, just google around and you will find a lot of buzz on it).

22 October 2008

The Sound of Melting Snow

Through the window comes
the sound of melting snow--
a warm breeze.
-sek, Oct 2008

It may seem a bit odd, a haiku about early spring just as we are heading into winter, but this one is based on an idea I've been kicking around for some years, trying to capture the experience of listening to the sound of snow melting from all directions through my window on a warm later winter day. I wanted to capture that feeling of prescience and anticipation and only now was able to compose a haiku around it.

Yellow Leaves

Yellow leaves arranged
on black branches--
exquisite in the rain.
-sek, Oct 2008

Also, more in the Western tradition:

Yellow leaves arranged
on branches stained
exquisite in the rain.
-sek, Oct 2008

The use of rhyme is not typical of haiku.

25 September 2008

Transforming Conversations to Knowledge

This problem of how to transition ephemeral, but timely, information found in forums, Q and A sessions, all the forum-like forms on the network from Usenet to Twitter is one that fascinates me. I've thought about this for a long time without really coming up with any good mechanism for capturing the knowledge and experience of the forum, the group, from scattered individual, unrefined forms, to coherent, refined forms maintained by the community. I think that the idea of automatically transitioning content created by an individual into community property is a great idea. It may meet with some resistance from individuals. But I think it is a good solution to this problem, since anyone can start a conversation that does not just spin out into the oblivion of old forum posts, but can become a seed that grows into a well maintained, coherent, concise source of information.

Where does my interest in this issue come from?

As soon as I got my first website up and running, I wanted an email discussion group. It wasn't long until I was using Smartlist to maintain my own email discussion list. The discussions provided a wealth of information that was otherwise lost or scattered among messages---high signal to noise. One of my tasks was to glean the best information from the list and edit it to create a concise summary of the conclusions drawn in the conversation, which went into a single web page.

While working as a tech support person about ten years ago, it was my practice to glean solutions from our customer forums and distill them into concise answers I could repeat to future customers who experienced the same problem.

I thought there must be some way to automate or smooth this process of collecting the knowledge contained in conversations into a concise article form. It would be necessary to create some kind of bridge from forum to wiki. I thought about this on and off over the years, and tried creating a few tools to help with the processing of forum threads into articles, but until I stumbled across this idea of automatic promotion from individual post to wiki page, I could not see a way to do this that people would actually use.

It really seems this would work well with the quick-slow rhythm of a bliki, to automatically promote "blog" posts to "wiki pages" according to some criteria. I'll have to think about this some more.

In any event, there is another mechanism for easily capturing knowledge from users. We are seeing entire sites developed around a question, like Facebook's "What are you doing now?" or Yammer's "What are you working on?" or Whrrl's "What are you doing and where are you doing it?" with a threaded discussion or map being the result, which is then shared with friends. Sites like del.icio.us use self-interest to capture knowledge from users without their realizing they are doing the sites work for them. For social bookmarking, by giving users the opportunity to store and organize their own bookmarks, they provide the material for communal organization (or discussion, etc. if you take it further).

Capturing and Refining User Expertise

One of my longtime interests has been how to create a system that captures the knowledge of experts and refines it into a single resource. I was attracted to wikis early on by their communal authorship, but found the lack of structure unsuitable for my needs. What I wanted, for two of my early efforts, one a site intended to help family photography historians answer questions about old photographs and the other a site for programmers to find help with coding questions, was a way to let users engage in a Q and A and then somehow capture and distill the expertise into a more traditional article format (like a wiki page), which could be maintained by everyone. I wanted to capture the expertise emerging from the group discussion through some mechanism.

I ended up developing a content management system for the coding site, which had the ability to "fold" a comment thread attached to an article back into the article for editing. I also developed a tool, which could take a forum thread and turn it into an article text for editing. These solutions required a lot of manual effort to whip the unruly comments into a coherent article.

All along I wanted to introduce the communal editing feature of a wiki to this process, but I faced the obstacle of how to overcome the distinction between communal content and content owned by the user posting it. I racked my brains to design the system to somehow enable a transition from personal content to communal content, so that question and answer sessions centered around a code example or problem, could be "folded" into a more communal source of information, refined and with conclusions. But never found a solution.

Originally, I had wanted to develop my coding help site as a Q and A site like Experts Exchange. This explains why I needed some way of converting the knowledge captured by the Q and A session, if there were a solution, into an article form. A QandA session usually results in exposing a lot of valuable knowledge from experts. I wanted a way to capture and refine this so people could learn to code better from it.

Stackoverflow.com a Q and A site for coders. It is simply excellent in design and execution. What fascinates me most is their concept of a "Community Post." When a post is edited by more than four users, it it promoted to a Community Post, which is editable by every user and no longer belongs to the original owner. Apparently, they use a wiki-like versioning system for their posts, so the original post is owned by the original posting user, subsequent versions I suppose are owned by their editors (the user who revised it), and after four unique edits becomes the property of the community.

This mechanism provides a smooth transition from traditional _authorship_ to the communal writing style of the wiki where the community is the author and authorship is anonymous. I wish I had thought of it, since the original idea for my site was a "code wiki" that would not just provide solutions to programming questions but help coders learn from the results and improve their skills. I don't want to rehash my failures with phphelp.com, but to highlight an innovative way of providing a smooth transition between individually owned and communal content.

One of the questions raised by this is authorship. People like attribution because it builds their reputation. So in a wiki environment, they lose their attribution. A user's post becomes a community post. So what happens to a user's credit? One solution is to create an indirect proxy for credit in a communal authorship environment, so that good authors get "badges" or "reputations" that they wear independently. Instead of a "byline" for your post, you get a badge representing the amount and effectiveness of your contributions.

Which is better? Everyone owning their own content or communal content? It really depends on the audience and goals of the site. Some people prefer to own their own content and share it. This is how most social media sharing sites work. You own your content and your friends own their content and the site provides a way of sharing it. Social bookmarking sites also enable users to keep their own content separate from others and then the content is mixed and matched through tag navigation. A wiki-style system generally views content as communal. Stackoverflow solved this problem with a novel mechanism for transitioning content from individual to communal status.

It occurred to me this mechanism might be valuable in a so-called bliki system, which is a blog and a wiki combined. In a bliki, users create quick, timely posts like blog entries connected to dates, but they can also edit the content of posts to create and reference wiki pages. This enables users to make quick sketchy entries like a blog, but then later, reflect on those entries with longer posts. This is called "quick-slow" in bliki terms. What if this process could be facilitated by automatically transitioning the "quick" blog post into a "slow" wiki page? Instead of making a blog post then creating a wiki page linked to it with extra information, the blog post would at some point transform itself into communal content, from blog post to wiki page. Authorship would still be retained because each post would still exist in the wiki history. Anyone could go back to the original blog post to see who posted it and what it was about.

22 September 2008

Whrrl to Worlds: Social and Geographical Surroundings Networked

I suspected there would soon be a site attempting to give users a handle on their social and physical surroundings. To combine social and geographical "peripheral vision" enabling people to know what their friends are doing and where they are. What you are doing + where you are = an event, which represents a profound change in the way we use the web/network. And there is:

http://www.whrrl.com/

"The people you know. The places they go" is their slogan.

The first question whrrl asks is "What are you doing right now?" There is nothing special in this since Facebook has used the same question to power The Wall (social blog/feed system) for some time. Next, you are asked "Where in the world are you?" Whrrl combines a social activity feed of Facebook with the lightweight asynchronous message system of Twitter or Jaiku with elements of various mapping systems.

Whrrl enables you to discover and keep in touch with your social and geographical surroundings. The only thing lacking might be three dimensional street level mapping to place you right in the representation of the physical world you and your friends inhabit.

As Whrrl's tour says "You can interact with everything" in the world around you. But not only can you interact with elements of the physical and geographical world, labeling, sharing, evaluating the physical world, the traffic on the street, the quality of a restaurant you've just eaten dinner at with a simple thumbs up and down voting system, you can also see immediately what your friends are doing and where they are, as well as share this "virtual content" overlaid on the world with them. Who knows where this will end? A merging of Whrrl with the virtual world, a kind of "Second Life" that follows you around in the physical world, populated with your friends, your friends of friends, familiar landmarks and points of interest overlaid with commentary?

Interestingly, for every point of interest, you can mark whether you have been there or indicate a desire to go there. This could be powerful marketing data. Think of how valuable it would be for the Baguette Box in Washington, DC to know how many people indicate a desire to visit? How valuable it would be to know where these potential visitors live. Do they live across the country or nearby? Who are they and what are their demographics?

In many ways, this is the same vein as farmfoody. We envisioned how helpful it would be to enable people to tell their friends about a great roadside stand they found, potentially while they are at the stand by using their cell phone to access our site. Although we have been reluctant for a variety of reasons to allow rating of independent farms, the ability to communicate this kind of information. We have a good start, we are going in the right direction, but we need to get moving, to bring this kind of combined social and geographical approach to the world of farmer's markets and independent farms.

29 August 2008

Social Realms: Sharing and Publishing Become One

There is an increasing recognition of the importance of 'social realms' within the context of social networking. Some social sites started out as "walled gardens" where only friends could see social content a user posts. Other sites started out with all content posted being public like a graffiti wall. Social site builders are now recognize there should be many fine graduations of control over viewing and sharing social content. These social realms extend out from the user in concentric circles, from the being able to see their own content ("me"), to friends, to friends of friends, to networks or groups of friends, and finally to the public.

Blogging was always seen as a form of publishing. The new systems emerging now are centered around "social blogging" or "social news feeds" and are called by various names. Facebook merged their "wall" application and their "mini-feed" application in a single feature called The Wall, an example of one of these new forms for facilitating social interaction between small groups of friends in an asynchronous manner (as opposed to chat or telephony). Like Twitter and Jaiku, they enable "social peripheral vision" or seeing what your friends are doing and passing brief notes back and forth to keep in touch or coordinate activities. These posts are not publishing in the traditional sense and are not considered publishing, since in theory, the posts are intended for friends (although some sites offering these services create a kind of public feed everyone can see).

The Wall on facebook has all the elements of Jaiku or other similar sites, a series of blog-like posts limited to a brief snippet of text in reverse chronological order with the ability for users to comment on them. What makes them social is that the posts are seen by your _friends_ who are the only ones who can comment. So you could post about going to the farmer's market on Sunday and a friend could comment by asking you to pick up some tomatoes. Another friend could comment they will be at the same market and will meet you there. Comments are an important feature because they enable individualized topical conversations. If friends could only post to the "circle of friends" feed, the conversation would become disjointed. Social posts are the start of conversation.

This just emphasizes the need for social realms that determine the scope in which social content is accessible. Facebook offers several social realms for Wall posts, your own, your friends, your friends of friends, your network of friends, the public.

The last is interesting, because it brings us full circle. Most platforms were publishing platforms before the social networking craze, then there emerged platforms for social sharing but without any publishing. Now the two platforms are converging into a single platform for sharing with granular control over the social realms into which any piece of content goes, from sharing with a circle of friends to publishing to the whole world and every gradation in between.

Publishing has a completely different feel to it than social sharing. It requires different tools, ones which facilitate authorship, but have no need for defining the social realms in which the works of authorship will be consumed. I had watched the emergence of Twitter and Jaiku but failed to see their signficance, since their posts were so brief. I saw them as being limit blogs, and idea I had toyed with in the late 90s, but bloggers were more interested in longer and longer posts, being literary types. They were interested in publishing. It was finally understanding the social use of these short-message systems (it is no accident the popularity of SMS correponds with the popularity of these small message blog-like systems) to keep people in touch socially that I understood their usefulness. It makes little sense to critcise the inane or brief posts to Twitter as not contributing to human knowledge or letters, the purpose of these sites, as it is said of Jaiku, to maintain social peripheral vision (something I didn't even know I needed and still feels uncomfortable in the "buddylist 24/7" way it is presented). Maybe someone should start a site called "Tome" for long posts of intellectual brilliance contributing to the total of human knowledge, a mirror image of Twitter. Or perhaps that was what Blogger was supposed to be.

The convergence between sharing and publishing, which began with the original c2 wiki and the lowering of barriers to a read/write web, is emerging as a powerful new metaphor for interaction. Publishing will come to be seen as just sharing with everyone. All content, all media will be social and social realms determine the intended audience.

At farmfoody.org, we will be moving quickly to provide our users with this kind of close-knit interaction, which eschews the private message metaphor derived from email and the blog metaphor from publishing. A graffiti wall is too public and random to be of much use, private messages are stultifying and open to abuse since anyone can send a private message across social realms. The blog was intended for publishing, the feed for syndication, but this new format, the social feed or blog, converges sharing and publishing into a form easily digestible and controllable by users.

05 August 2008

Micro Four Thirds: The New "Rangefinder?"

Olympus and Panasonic have announced a new camera format based on the 4/3 image sensor format and compatible with the Four Thirds lens mount. Without a mirror and using half the normal flange distance, Micro Four Thirds cameras have the potential to be incredibly small, very similar to the 35mm rangefinder cameras popular in the late 1970s. Read the announcement of Micro Four Thirds at dpreview.

The new cameras will employ a live view LCD screen and electronic viewfinder. The shorter lens flange will mean smaller lenses. An adapter for existing Four Thirds lenses is envisioned.

12 June 2008

Revenge of the Round, Red Tomatoes

I believe the contaminated tomato debacle unfolding over the last week has something to tell us about the factory food system, which supplies much of what we eat. It is fascinating how this came to be embodied in the shape of our tomatoes. A lot of people are asking the question, just what kind of tomatoes are safe to eat? One answer, we are told by news and government, is to suspect our round tomato friends of harboring salmonella. I had to stop and ask why is this? Why round tomatoes?

Although the description has caused confusion, my first thought was that by “round red tomato” they were talking about the class of nondescript tomato one finds commonly in the supermarket produce section, piled high in a bin. Typically, these are large, as nearly perfectly spherical as the tomato board can blandish producers into making them, bland looking orbs sold in the supermarkets and funneled by the ton into the fast food system to be slapped onto burgers. They are the perfect food to fit the machine.

A second later, it occurred to me that if I were to go to my local farmer's market or farm stand looking for tomatoes and I found some decidedly out-of-round, oddly shaped heirloom tomatoes, that I could very likely be assured they were uncontaminated. They are too imperfect, too delicate for the factory food system, and very likely grown on a local farm or garden. Their shape was a key to identifying their probable origin in a distributed, local food system. By the shape of the tomato I could judge its origin and quality, since I knew that no sane commodity grower would grow such a tomato, unfit for the fast food joint, unfit for the average consumer (who has lost contact with farm and garden, with whole food) frightened by a few blemishes, odd colors or funky shapes.

I can't promise you won't get sick from locally grown tomatoes. The independent farm system creates something big agriculture lacks: firebreaks. The decentralized nature of independent farms and their localized customer base create firewalls capable of containing an outbreak. The factory food system grows enormous numbers of a single crop and distributes the harvest through a sprawling food processing system, which spreads and amplifies even a small outbreak in one field across the nation, into all sorts of processed foods, just as happened with contaminated lettuce. It is the nature of the system, which has only dominated for a handful of decades, that has changed our relation to food and presented this problem of “wildfires.”

Although an individual tomato patch might become contaminated, the effects would be isolated to the one farm or local area. There is far less chance of cross contamination on the way to market. The farm down, in the other state, the road is unlikely to suffer the same contamination. A farm depends on its reputation. Any taint or question about its food and the farm will be devastated. Independent farms rely on their reputation to bring return business, unlike big agriculture.

Perhaps it is fitting the warning comes in the form of these alien orbs, signaling with their perfect roundness and flashing reds, the revenge of the round red tomatoes. Although at first glance, the oddly shaped heirloom at the farm stand might seem more alien, those are the fruits that piqued my curiosity when as a child my parents took me to visit farm stands. They were outstanding in the multi-lobed beauty, looking ready to burst. They were bursting with flavor, at least when we got them home and started the barbecue.

09 June 2008

Haiku, Senryu or Other: Does expression or form matter most?

It doesn't matter to me whether I write haiku or senryu or whatever, as long as what I am writing is a satisfying expression of my need to share experience and thought. It would do no good to say a particular poem of mine is senryu and show me how to make it haiku, or to say I should withdraw it because it is not haiku.

It isn't the form of poetry that matters. I'm not trying to write haiku, I'm trying to express myself. That's a crucial difference. Beginners want to know how to write haiku. But I what I tell you is that you want to find the form that enables you to express yourself, not learn to write haiku or iambic pentameter. You need to learn from these forms the form that suits you best, or a form in between no one has ever imagined yet. Each form you may take something from, you may move toward one or the other, or among them, but there will be a form that liberates your expression and you should use whatever form that is. Haiku is the just form of expression that gets closest to perfectly expressing what I need to express.

Some of my poems may be failed haiku, but they are not failed expressions, if a poem I thought was a haiku, is not really a haiku, but expressed perfectly what I wanted to express, I am satisfied with not bothering to to classify or "correct" it to meet the requirements for haiku.

If making it more legitimately a haiku would improve that communication or expression, I would gladly do it, but without that reason, I would leave it well enough alone.

I am mindful when writing of an experience I wish to share, to write it as I think a haiku should be written, consisting of statements about concrete objects, which taken together erect in the mind of the reader a metaphor that creates a satisfying "buzz."

06 June 2008

Degas and the Little Dancer

I recalled the story of Degas's sculpture the Little Dancer the other day. For a long time I have looked upon it as an example of how creativity really works and some of the misunderstandings about creativity our society perpetuates.

It might surprise you to know that Degas was not a sculptor. Although he made a number of sculptures, none of them were ever shown to the public except for the dancer. For a long time Degas was frustrated that sculptors were failing to explore what we now call realism in sculpture. It appears that Degas' interest in photography may have inspired him to envision a new vocabulary for sculpture, which depicted the subject as it really was, instead of attempting to inspire people with an idea or vision of what ought to be. Most sculptors of his time continued to work in this tradition of heroic or uplifting sculpture. Oddly enough, this is akin to "socialist realism" of the 1930s, which demanded that art earn its living by bringing about social change or improvement in society, otherwise it was not worth the effort. If art was not uplifting the individual or society, it was not worthwhile. The art world was astonished by the little dancer, many critics were disgusted and offended by its realism. It was revolutionary and introduced realism to sculpture. Degas had a truly innovative vision for sculpture and despite not being a sculptor he decided that it would be up to him to realize this vision.

An article on Degas published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art describes the quality of his work politely, saying "the artist's armatures were often inadequate." (Timeline of Art History, Edgar Degas (1834–1917): Bronze Sculpture http://www.metmuseum.org/TOAH/hd/dgsb/hd_dgsb.htm 2008). My understanding is that this was an understatement, that restoration artists working on the original wax sculptures found them to be very fragile, falling apart. This may be due to their intermediary role in casting a bronze, but I believe it is another piece of the puzzle demonstrating Degas was not a professional sculptor. It is believed Degas had help from friends who were sculptors from time to time while creating the Little Dancer.

There is a website, the Daily WTF?, devoted to sharing the coding mistakes (among other things like funny or confusing error messages) of naive, inexperienced or confused programmers. It occurred to me that if a Daily WTF? existed for sculptors when the Little Dancer was presented to the world, Degas would have made the front page. It certainly would not have met with approval from professional sculptors in his day. The site could be viewed as akin to group of master craftspeople getting together to laugh at the mistakes of apprentices and lesser craftspeople.

What is the lesson in all of this? What I came to understand was there is a difference between craft and art. Sculptors have "doing things correctly" as the measure of themselves and their profession. Sculpture should be done the "correct" way otherwise it should be regarded with contempt. Degas showed that one does not need to meet this standard to create a significant work of art that demonstrates the possibility inherent in a new artistic vocabulary, in this case, the introduction of realism into sculpture.

Degas was frustrated that sculptors were not exploring realism in sculpture. When he saw that they were not going to do something about it, he decided that he had to step in, despite not being a sculptor. The sculptors were capable of creating refined, polished, correct works according to their traditions, but they were not up to creating a revolution in art. In fact, their devotion to craft made it more difficult to (and less likely) to create an artistic breakthrough.

It happens that many good creative people restrain themselves out of fear. I know there are people who had ideas for innovative software applications, which were created in private but never released, because the code might end on the Daily WTF? Or whatever equivalent they imagined existed within the programming community at the time. They could have released their code to the wild and might have been influential and garnered attention for their work, but they failed to do so out of fear. This is not unique to software, but afflicts all creative activities.

It is the fear that you're not good enough to write a novel unless you're as good as the best novelist. It is the fear you're not good enough to make a film, because you're not as good as the best filmmaker. It is the fear you're not good enough to paint a significant painting, make a significant photograph, write a good story, because you're not equal to the best practitioners in the field. But that's not what art is about. Art is about the idea and you only need to be good enough to get a revolutionary idea across to succeed, not live up to the expectations of a craft community.

I am reminded of Edward Young's Conjectures on Original Composition appearing in a 1759 letter, he asks “why are originals so few?” His answer is that “illustrious examples engross, prejudice, and intimidate” creative people into silence. He goes on to say that we must not imitate the works of a great author, but should imitate the method or understanding by which their great works were arrived at. He asks authors to not become overawed by authority, to “let not great examples of authorities browbeat” you into dismissing your own ideas, your own creativity. He says we should “reverence” ourselves so as to prefer the “the native growth” of our own mind and “the man who thus reverences himself will soon find the world's reverence to follow his own.” Only by not being “strangers to our own abilities” and not “thinking meanly of them” can we learn to “cherish every spark of intellectual light.” Degas was an accomplished painter but not an accomplished sculptor, so how did he manage to revolutionize the vocabulary or sculpture? By not deferring to authority or exhibiting “diffidence” to his own ideas about what sculpture should be.

We teach people the wrong thing, we teach them to be perfectionists, to do things the correct way or not at all, but we don't teach them about Degas, we don't teach them that the creative act is more important than perfecting the craft, but then most people are engaged in some kind of craft or another, because that is where they derive their income and the world is mostly concerned with ensuring people earn a living. I know some people will argue that it is possible to perfect one's craft and to be a great artist. I am not arguing against that possibility, but it is rare, and doesn't apply to Degas.

Degas perfected his craft as a painter, but his ability to paint did not help or hinder his task of demonstrating the possibility for realism in sculpture, which required that he move into an area that was not his practiced expertise. He didn't have to perfect his craft as a sculptor to create a sculpture that was a declaration of a novel idea. Just as a sum can be greater than its parts, a lesser work can be greater than the best works of the day. It is greater because of its intellectual light, it's daring and reach, not the quality of its manufacture.

29 May 2008

Is Hollywood the "Shadow Government?"

Increasingly, as so-called intellectual property becomes more prominent in the economy of the information age, is the entertainment industry becoming our government?

http://www.dailytech.com/article.aspx?newsid=11885

Copyright is beginning to destroy our culture and exterminate the arts until Western art will be an empty shell, if it isn't already.

On second thought, this is easy to defeat. Just take an empty media player with you and fill it up from the network once you arrive at your destination...most people will probably fill it up with "pirate" editions since those will be the easiest to obtain. Someday, there won't be any source other than the network anyway. Or, as one person commented, mail your ipod to you.

I have to agree with the other comments that this is a futile effort by hidebound executives to put their finger in the dike. What troubles me is that this erosion of our culture has been going on for a long time, since the introduction of recorded media. I've said before that we should consider avoiding recorded media, that society should return to entertaining itself by playing our music, singing, gathering to hear music played locally, similar to the local eating movement. The invention of the phonorecord, despite the positive of being able to preserve music, has done a great deal of damage to the existing music culture. In the 19th century most people were in a band, played piano, sang in a choir, perhaps many still do, but when I compare our culture and attitudes toward music to a society like Ireland or others relatively untouched by recorded music, there is much greater participation. Everyone sings or plays a musical instrument it seems, and it's not shameful for ordinary people to join in and sing even if they aren't up to "professional" standards, yet the same culture produces some of the best singers and musicians. Recorded music appears to have eroded the incentives to play and sing, and created disincentives to perform publicly, reduced the outlets and venues, turned performance into an industry, much like farming has been turned into an industry.

It is strange to hear music of any and all genre coming at you from random directions and sources. It's like food, with technology, there are no seasons. Hearing music without the musicians divorces it from its culture and locality. One car goes down the street thumping out rap, the next blaring Latin rhythms, a country song, rock, pop, jazz. Which is the real music? Which is the real feeling? I think this is something that recorded music has done, cut us adrift from musical culture, musical practice, musical community. When we can have any music at our fingertips, played back as a card board cutout of the original through speakers, its volume controlled by a knob, it is like food disconnected from the seasons, from growing, from cooking.

27 May 2008

17 May 2008

Farm Food: A conversation connecting food to people

It occurred to me that farm food is about more than finding fresh vegetables. We don't just visit a farmer's market or roadside stand because of the fresh vegetables. We go there to experience a sense of community. At the market we get to relate to real people. To meet people. To talk to vendors who know what they sell, care about what they sell, and can answer our questions. A supermarket produce section is like a warehouse peopled by stock movers who know little or nothing about the produce they sell. You may find a knowledgeable individual here and there, but the system is designed to move produce like boxes at a warehouse. The produce guy at the supermarket is not there for conversation. The relationship gets very personal when you have the same grocer for many years, when you visit the same roadside stand, when you buy vegetables or eggs from a neighbor with a microfarm.

I always remember how refreshing it was as a child when my mother would take me to the grocery store to buy meat for hamburgers or roast. We would always ring for the butcher behind the mirrored wall of windows above the coolers. A real, live human being would come out from behind the supermarket slickness and suddenly the store seemed more real to me. Here was a real person we could talk to in a big empty store. There were employees in the store, here and there, to be seen occasionally stacking products on the shelves or moving boxes. There were the checkout people. There were customers pushing their carts about the aisles. But you didn't hold a conversation with these people, you couldn't ask anything of them or get anything from them. No relationship existed with them. But the butcher was someone, the last person in the supermarket you could engage in conversation with, interact directly with, to build a relationship, however small.

We would ask him to grind our selection of chuck for us. We didn't trust what went into the prepackaged ground beef and wanted to pick the piece of chuck with the marbling and amount of fat to meat we wanted (invariably, we wanted more fat than lean offered, but less than the real fatty stuff). He would grind our beef and return it to us in a white paper package, or later, in the same kind of Styrofoam and plastic wrap package the prepackaged meat came in. What I liked about going to the butcher was that we could participate in the making of our food. We could choose the cut of meat we wanted. Inspect it for the marbling, fat content, redness, etc. and then the butcher would grind our beef to order. There was something to seeing the cut of beef before it was ground, still whole, like a steak, which gave a feeling of satisfaction, knowing that it was a good cut and where the ground beef came from, unlike the prepackaged ground beef. It was a social interaction, requiring conversation between producer and consumer, which was very satisfying. Even a child could notice. We came away with ground beef we felt comfortable with, arrived at through a negotiation, had our say in the process, did not have to take what was offered to us. It felt good.

A farm is a lively place of growing things. It is more of a happening that never stops than a location. A farm is not a depot for food where we pick it up and move on. It is a center of activity, socializing and participation. The farm offers the same kind of interaction I enjoyed at the supermarket butcher's.

As the driving force and principal developer behind farmfoody.org, I am beginning to realize a social network connecting farm to garden embodies what I enjoyed as a child about going to the supermarket butcher. It is a model for why we enjoy visiting, shopping for produce at farm stands, farmer's markets and local farms.

14 May 2008

The Inuit Paradox

"How come the people here, who for long periods eat nothing but the meat from one type of animal, are healthier than we are?" Andreas Viestad, author of "Where Flavor Was Born," poses the nutritional question in Where Home Cooking Gets the Cold Shoulder. This is another example of how an evolved system is superior to an engineered one. It shows the connection between culture (cuisine and taste) and nutrition. A food culture that survives, survives because the people are still alive to continue eating according to their food ways. This is also another way in which folklore affects us.

The more distance you put between yourself and the nutritionists with their reductionist theories, the better your health will be.

I disagree with the statement by nutrition researcher
Harriet V. Kuhnlein, who says "Every time you process or cook something -- anything -- you are likely to be losing nutrients at every step..." This is not true for cooking tomatoes, which liberates and makes certain nutrients more bioavailable. We don't know what the tradeoffs between raw and cooked are.

It is worth noting the author's book is concerns flavor. Because taste is an important determinant in the choices a food culture makes. We suspect that in pre-scientific socities people somehow discovered what foods, what parts of the animal, were the most nutritious and the higher status or wealthier people (quite the opposite in the West, where eventually wealth meant less nutritious foods) ate the best parts. It turns out the best parts provide critical nutrients not found in other parts of the animal.

Traditional cultures cannot afford to waste any part of the animal and therefore generally eat liver, brains, etc. that are undesirable to most Americans or modern Westerners. These parts have gradually disappeared from the Western diet because they are "yucky" to think about. These parts can be an acquired taste. So it leaves open the question, were these pre-scientific people guided by taste or by observing people were healthier when they ate these parts? Maybe it is simple as a large number of groups eating different diets, the ones with a better diet survived, and their choices became a food tradition.

12 May 2008

Nature and culture

Nature and culture are connected. Art emerges in nature. I like to photograph the happenstance or "found art" in nature, which is is just another way of saying that art naturally emerges in nature. The potential exists in nature for the creation of art through the juxtaposition of elements according to natural laws and emergent patterns (what we used to think of as chance). This is what I try to capture in my nature photographs.

If you'd like to know more about how nature and culture are connected, read William Cronon's Uncommon Ground.

11 May 2008

Namespaces for Tags

I've been thinking about "namespaces" for tags lately. Sometimes tags become too random, disorganized, or numerous to be relevant or useful. One way of cutting through the clutter is to create more than one set of tags. I've seen this on at least one website, sprig.org, which offers "togs" or an alternative set of tags to classify posts by. The difference is these tags are restricted to a particular concept, types of ecology-related terms, such as "organic." What this secondary set of tags produces is in reality a set of tags under another namespace "Ecology."

It is possible to organize tags into namespaces, each representing a concept. This would not be imposing hierarchy on tags, but creating nodes representing concepts. So that Ecology might contain organic, carbon free, sustainable, etc. and Mathematics might contain number, equation, factor, etc.

I organize my photographs in Photoshop Elements using tags. I chose to avoid using tags like categories and instead only create tags for qualities of the image. I try to create tags that describe the image the way an art historian might classify works by their elements or an archivist might classify images according to social use. An image depicting people at work is an "occupational" for example. A painting might be "abstract" and "nature" and "patterns."

Here is a partial list of my tags. I try to create tags for

a) Qualities of art, such as Landscape or Pictorialist
b) Things that can be seen in photographs, concrete like Aircraft or abstract like Patterns
c) Subjects, categories of subjects, concrete like Nature, Sky or abstract like Time


Abstract
Aircraft
Automobile
Birds
Butterflies
Concrete
Flowers
Impressionist
Landscape
Leaves
Nature
Patterns
Photos
Pictorialist
Plants
Rain
Shadows
Sky
Snow
Time
Trees
Urban

I can see some benefit in putting these in a namespace, limiting the tags in this space to reduce clutter. For example, tags on Buddhism would not be found in great number in this set (unless a) you have a lot of Buddhist photography or b) you attach tags from a Buddhist namespace and then they wouldn't be in the set). I don't know how successful namespaces might be for tagging. Programmers love namespaces, but ordinary people find them confusing. I like the idea of tying namespaces to concepts.

I think namespaces would come in handy when choosing tags from a list, like when you show all labels in Blogger's interface. You get one long unreadable list of every tag you've used. Sometimes I love tags when I can just enter the key words that are in my mind while writing a post, but sometimes I hate them when what I really want are categories. I read an article the other day by a graphic artist who designs for the web who continued to use the web safe palette long after it was not technically necessary. He argued that artists tend to choose colors from a comprehensible and memorable palette of colors, such as the Pantone set or the set of colors defined by the various oil pigments. With 16 million colors there are far more colors than anyone could recall or discern. For every "olive green" there are hundreds of colors in between that and the next discernible color moving in either direction on the color wheel. It helps to have a standard color when envisioning or communicating "olive green" to others. I think tags are afflicted with this problem.

09 May 2008

Simplicity and Community

Community: From Little Things, Big Things Grow is a really good overview of how community grew on Flickr and some of the philosophy informing how social community works.

At Flickr, we’ve worked very hard to remain neutral while our members jostle and collide and talk and whisper to each other. Sharing photos is practically a side-effect. Our members have thrilled and challenged us—not just with their beautiful photography, but by showing us how to use our infrastructure in ways we could have never imagined.

This is the same principle that operated when the web was born. It was simple, open and flexible enough that people could put it to unintended uses. It wasn't overdesigned. The net itself enabled people who "shouldn't" or "wouldn't" want to connect to find each other. It enabled people to find information they "shouldn't" need or want to find it. It enabled people to find, and share, what was important to them.

As I just wrote, the content, the pictures, the things we share on a site like facebook have little to do with the success of a social utility, they have everything to do with keeping up with your friends, which involves photos, but it is people, keeping up with what friends are doing, whether gardening or photographing, engaging in activities, like who can create the best compost heap or who has the best fashion photograph, that sustain.

The sculpture demonstrated a fascinating idea: given fewer rules, people actually behaved in more creative, co-operative, and collaborative (or competitive, as the case may be) ways.

It should not be surprising, given that HTML was a simplification of rule heavy SGML. Given fewer rules, anyone could make web pages and share them. Every time the network or web has grown, information technology has grown, it has been through a simplifying moment. It is also why the Wiki has touched such a nerve online and been very inspiring to what became called "Web 2.0" applications. It reminds me of a cool new online note taking tool Luminotes. I find its overall simplicity refreshing (for example, its simplified set of text markup options set off in oversize buttons and the brilliant recasting of the one-page-at-a-time-wiki into a scrollable set of note cards). Is the ideal website a tabula rasa like wiki, like a blank page available to users without any structure? I doubt it. Since that would just be a whiteboard or "graffiti wall" there has to be some simple rules aimed at organizing the activity toward some basic interests, as Flickr does.

It is true, corporations think they can "add community" like adding new delivery routes or buying an aircraft to open up a new route. You don't add community, you grow it. At farmfoody.org, we have to keep lines of communication open to independent farmers, many of whom have a low opinion of the usefulness of anything online. It takes a lot of time, commitment and personal touch to grow this kind of community. You have to show why getting online is important, and be ready to answer the inevitable questions.

Some thoughts on social networking

I've been working on building a social networking site, but because of the angle we approached this (we sort of backed into it) it did not have many of the features of a "normal" social site. As we have developed the site, I've used more social networking services in order to study them and thought about some of the decisions we've made.

The essence of social networking is helping people keep up with what their social group is doing and sharing interesting things with them. It's not really about the content, the pictures, the classified, the video, the recipes. What keeps people coming back to the social network is curiosity about what their friends are doing. Or they are notified of some new content related to a friend's recent activity, photos from last night's great party or the new baby.

We gave ourself quite a task, since a core audience for our network consists of people who are very stubborn about getting online. Many do not even have or want an email address, let alone a website or a social network membership. We had to justify participation in the site through self-interest that was very different from the typical reasons people sign up for a social network. But I am beginning to think that the same principle applies, that the fundamental reason for belonging to a social network is keeping up with people. At least, it is what keeps people coming back.

The more public aspects, the posting of messages, the publishing of event information, these are all useful aspects of a social network, but they are more part of the "myspace" style network, which has a large public publishing (some might say exhibitionist) element compared to some of the "facebook" style sites, which are walled gardens of interaction.

The information that flows inside the social network is as important as the information that is accessible by the public. This is the rap on social networking, that much of the useful information user activity generates does not become part of the public web, which means others cannot learn from it, search it or preserve the conversation for future generations. However, using a "share" model, it may be possible to expose content to the public sphere when the user desires. So the information is by default within the walled garden of the network, but can easily be shared to another network or on the public web. These patterns are emerging on facebook and google reader's shared items.

The RSS reader is a private experience containing information that is an internal flow unavailable to the web. The syndication sphere is entirely separate from the web and opaque to web search, unless that content is already on the web. So the share function is essential to get that information back out into the public, or perhaps it was generated from an internal group working on some project with its own RSS feed, items of which could be shared with the public at the reader's discretion.

With the information generated within the social network, a person may share a link with their friends, one of whom may share it on their "page" to the public web. This is more a part of the keeping up with friends and sharing content with friends than it is putting something on your profile page for the world to see, whether it's the equivalent of a "high five" or a concert schedule, this is really external to the network and its social use.

A social network is about enabling friends to keep up with what each other is doing (social peripheral vision, it's been called) and share information with their friends. These are the two fundamental themes of the social network. This is why monetizing is so difficult. The only way to monetize this activity is if somehow the act of sharing information can create revenue or incoporate commerce.

What if when you share news about a music group with your friends, you get paid a small amount by the musical group, just like a Google Ad? This would monetize the social activity itself.

08 May 2008

Red, Yellow, Orange

Contrary to the popular idea that red and yellow are colors signifying danger because poisonous animals display these colors as a warning, another theory says that "mammals developed the ability to distinguish between red, yellow and orange in order to identify ripe fruit." according to an interesting article, Red and Yellow Kills a Fellow.

Although it is popular today to see McDonalds and other fast food joints that advertise their food with red and yellow as a metaphor for the supposed dangers lurking within fast food, in reality fast food restaurants were safer places to eat than choosing from unfamiliar eateries and diners, which used to be referred to as "ptomaine Tommie's" prior to the emergence of clean, safe fast food places like White Castle or McDonalds.

There must some other explanation for the ubiquitous red and yellow cardboard french fry, popcorn boxes and "golden arches" and red and yellow sign, and this sounds like a reasonable one. It makes sense that humans would be attracted to the reds and yellows of fruits. We don't run screaming from the table when presented with pasta and tomato sauce or yellow squash.

The vibrancy of red and yellow is probably the real reason we are attracted to the fast food signs.

Simplicity

I found an interesting comment suggesting Lego blocks as an example of how simplicity could make software better. The poster argues there are "no complicated things" in the universe, but that things often merely seem complicated, an illusion our perception of the phenomena, and that if we just look closely enough (reduce it to parts---reductionism) a simple, linear, non-paradoxical design emerges. "Just look closer" the argument goes and you will see the simple, discrete, isolated building blocks of the seemingly complex system.

This is the reductionist argument.

The poster says this of Lego:

Let's take LEGO. Do you need to test LEGO package? Ofcoz, not. Do you need to test EACH (of hundreds) piece? No.
You have:
1. Global design.
2. Common interface to connect bricks (piece) to each other.
3. Pieces specification.
The problem with this analysis is it ignores that in real complex systems, wholes are sometimes parts and parts are sometimes wholes. Object oriented programming, tries to encapsulate each piece of information or action in a single "Lego block" isolated from all other software components, connected through standard interfaces like the pegs on a Lego piece. It is wrong to apply a mechanistic solution like that of the Lego blocks to information. Software is essentially information, and pieces of information can relate to each other in paradoxical ways, just as numbers and theorems in mathematics can. It's difficult for a Lego block to be a part and a whole, although each block is a whole that can be a part, but there is less chance for paradox and feedback in the Lego block system than say in the atmosphere or the soil.

In the soil, we have a physical system, but the "parts" that are interacting are not "real" but emergent, such as "fertility" that cannot be located in any one place. Thoughts in the brain cannot be located at anyone one place or time either.

One of the major problems I see with the building block approach to software, the object oriented approach, is that it tries to sever the very feedback loops that make a complex system interesting and useful. It fights against complexity until it creates more confusion or rigidity than it is sometimes worth. There is an entire field of study in computer science centered around the "object relational mismatch," which is just a fancy term for the reality that applications are constructed using inflexible objects and relational database systems store information in ways that can be retrieved paradoxically.

In a relational database, parts can be wholes and wholes can be parts, yet there is no system I know of that can capture this kind of complexity, no application or computing framework that can take advantage of the capacity for paradox and feedback in the database. No, the application must have its rigid, isolated objects, where an address book entry is always an address book entry and its parts are its own business and cannot be part of another entity.

In a database, some entities do not even exist until a question is asked. A new unnamed entity is created by the answer to a question the designers of the database never considered and could not foresee. Very likely "expert system" approaches will one day resolve this problem, applications being developed using coding techniques that are capable of handling paradoxical relationships.

So, I do not believe enforced simplicity and borrowing design principles from mechanistic systems like Lego blocks are effective. Complexity exists, we can't put our heads in the sand, plug our ears and continue pretending it doesn't exist, some day the object oriented paradigm will crash and burn and some new one that takes complexity into consideration will emerge.

07 May 2008

The Wiki and the Farm

There has been a flurry recently inspired by Michael Pollan writing about a vision of people becoming producers and consumers in society. He argues that industrialization created a division in society between producer and consumer, with the consumer essentially at the mercy of producers.

I've thought about how once there were many producers of food, but as agriculture industrialized, we began to call the things we did "industries," a hog farm became the hog industry, wheat farming became the grain industry, raising beef became the cattle industry. All the little myriad farms producing our food were replaced by large commodity farms based on economy of scale through centralization and industrialization (the use of petrochemical fertilizer, mechanized harvesting).

Some of the changes introduced by industry have been useful, for example frozen peas are by and large much better quality than fresh or canned peas. Peas must be picked at the very peak of sweetness, which only lasts for a day or two. This requires a massive and quick harvesting effort. The peas must be quickly frozen to preserve their sweetness and quality. If the peas were sent to a market, if they were picked over a number of weeks, the quality would suffer. The frozen pea is picked at the peak of sweetness and frozen in one quick, mechanized operation.

On the other hand, we by creating industries out of the various aspects of farming, we have lost something in the translation. We lost the intertwined way plants, animals and the soil interact with each other on the farm. This interaction was replaced by massive inputs of petrochemical fertilizer and pesticides to feed and protect the weak, sickly hybrids raised in huge monoculture beds required by economies of scale. But we lost another thing, which Pollan touches upon, the intermingling of producer and consumer that existed before industrialization. It is easy to see the small farmer as a producer, but it takes a little more digging to see the web of producers and consumers. The farmer produced food that the blacksmith ate, but the blacksmith shod the horses the farmer pulled his plows and harvesters with. At every level, people were producers and consumers.

The blacksmith is a recurring figure in my thoughts. Without a blacksmith the community would grind to a halt. The blacksmith also represents the complex web of production and consumption in the community before everything became an "industry," demonstrates the interdependencies in the community. The blacksmith must eat. The farmer must shoe his horses. No one can escape the individual and direct relationships that sustain them by shifting responsibility to some distant industry. The blacksmith also represents the connection between culture and nature, through the implements he fabricates for the farmer to work the fields and reinforces the true meaning of cultivation, which means to cultivate the land and to cultivate the person through culture.

After industrialization there were only classes of producers and consumers. There is always an imbalance, whether in farming or the music industry between producer and consumer, with a small number of producers creating things and a large number of consumers consuming things. The producers dictate what is produced, how it is produced and the consumers are passive or only through large numbers do they influence what is produced.

What does this have to do with wiki? The moment the first wiki was born, it made everyone and anyone who came along into an author or a reader, a producer or consumer. The wiki by definition commingles production and consumption, producers and consumers. The wiki was way ahead of its time. The contribution of this idea may be more important and lasting than the wiki as a way to manage content. The wiki's greatest contribution was to awaken people to a new reality, that in a networked world of digital information, post-industrialization is possible, that people can become producers and consumers again.

Pollan argues we should start gardens to lessen the division in our society between producers and consumers. By gardening, we can become producers as well as consumers of food. It is worth noting that maintaining a wiki can be likened to gardening, so perhaps a wiki is a garden, where like the real garden, is a place of reconciliation.

05 May 2008

Even Things Happen

I think we are at a moment like the discovery of irrational numbers, which were rejected by the Greeks as incomprehensible. It seemed crazy to believe in negative or irrational numbers, but once mathematics was past this reluctance, these kinds of numbers were accepted into the concept of number.

It is important to note the Greeks had an idea of number, which did not admit such things as negative or irrational numbers. Yet, in time, these concepts of number would come to be accepted by mathematicians and taught in modern elementary schools.

We are at the moment in science, where it is difficult to see the forest for the trees. We are so close to science as a reductionist process we fail to recognize there are other processes that can lead to scientific understanding. To most people, reductionism is science.

But we are beginning to discover another approach to understanding complex systems in the natural world, which goes beyond reductionism. Science is starting to recognize the reductionist approach fails to explain all aspects of reality. This new science of the "irrational" and complex, recognizes that things are much more occurrences than they are things. An occurrence is something that happens over time.

Even a stone plucked form a stream, held in the palm of the hand, science tells us is less solid than it appears. At the smallest levels a stone is nothing more than infinitesimally small particles, flitting in and out of existence from the "vacuum state." Even a stone is a kind of occurrence.

Science has been like the glass half full. With the discovery of the physics of chaotic systems and complexity theory, it can be a full glass. Equipped with the new science of the complex we can see nature is not a clockwork, that things are ephemeral an connected, but not just interconnected like the parts of a machine, but intertwined paradoxically, in feedback loops, or parts that are wholes and wholes that are parts.

We like to think of as things as things we can take apart, but they are actually occurrences. It will take a while for people to get used to this idea, just as it took a very long time for new concepts of number to become the stuff of elementary school mathematics.

If you find it difficult to see things as occurrences, think of how a food can be more than the sum of its parts, because the sum of its parts consists of its interactions with other parts and wholes in its environment, which means that a food is more an occurrence than a thing.

We must recognize the physical thing we study is inseparable from an occurrence, that even things happen.

16 April 2008

Ira Glass on Storytelling - Part 4



This reminds me of the advice to songwriters and musicians to support the song. The song is everything and everything, every element of the music, the words, the accompaniment is in service to the song. A song is not about you, it's not a showcase for your ability on the guitar or drums, it's not a place to showcase you, but to submerge yourself to the song. Beginning songwriters are often admonished they must "generalize the particular," which means that although the seed of every song is you, that it must be constructed or expressed in such a way that it touches others. No one is interested in your particular situation, but if you find those aspects of your life that are resonant with theres or universally with humanity, then you have a work of art, a song. I find this advice useful to nearly every creative activity possible, since genuine creativity always starts with the characteristics of the individual and their experience, creativity must start with what is unique about you, but it also must be bent (or you are lucky your expression naturally are) until it is resonant with humanity.

Much bad poetry is about me, me, me and my woe. If you're writing poetry to express poor poor pitiful me, please try to make it interesting and relevant to someone else if you're going to foist it on others. Otherwise, keep it to yourself. This is not to judge what is good or bad poetry, but a laundry list of your troubles is not a poem, it's not a significant work of art and it's not going to be compelling to anyone but yourself.

Ira Glass on Storytelling - Part 2



Abandoning ideas is one of the most difficult things a creative person can do. It is also one of the most important. I struggle to give up on ideas, since they are like my children. Zen teaches us to avoid clinging to our desires. It's like being fired, you can't move on to greater success or another project unless you leave the present one behind. Getting fired can be the best thing that happens. Killing the lesser idea, killing the lesser job, allows you to move on to the greater one.

I rarely throw away an idea. That is one habit creative writers exhibit, especially songwriters, they keep every scrap of an idea they write down and use them years later in other works. An abandoned idea is not always abandoned, just sleeping or waiting to find the right fit with another idea. Songwriters usually keep notebooks filled with scraps from overheard conversations or ideas that come late at night, at breakfast, in the shower, on the train.

Hitchcock, who said "Drama is life with the dull bits left out." would have agreed with Ira. In television or any form of moving pictures it is important to remain engaged with the viewer. The boring bits need to be left out.

I doubt the same thing is true of games that take place in three dimensional environments. It is not uncommon for a player in a first person shooter to experience a lull in the fighting against the aliens or whatever, or moving from one area to another. There is a lot of choice when, where and how to engage the enemy, and thus create action. The boring bits are integrated into the environment and a 3d video game (really a simulation) is unlike a movie, in that the environment is the narrative. This is like architecture, in which dimensional space is used to manipulate feelings of the person experiencing the space. Moving pictures need to supply a passive subject with constant interest or they will lose interest. But in a game, the player is always making the next move.

Ira Glass on Storytelling - Part 3



This is a very real phenomena where you know you have artistic intuition or what Ira calls taste, but you lack the experience or ability to realize that taste.

He says "do a huge volume of work" which goes against the grain of most rational advice. Why would you want to continue to repeatedly crank out poor quality work, work that does not live up to you vision, your taste? Isn't it a failure to create works that do not live up to your taste? You didn't become a creative person to make bad stuff you became one to make good stuff. I fell into this trap and am still struggling to get out of it. I always felt that I should only do good work otherwise I must be wasting my time. It always bothered me when I couldn't get through a song on the guitar without flubbing a note. I know musicians, even great ones, do this all the time and no one in the audience knows the difference or cares, but I know and I do. This is a kind of perfectionism, which stifles creativity, because it stops you artificially, it stops creativity by making a mountain out of a mole hill. It's always been a bit frightening to think that every artist no matter how great has a lifecycle, that they start out creating "diamonds in the rough" sometimes their most compelling, but technically flawed work, then become successful and do compelling and technically good work, then later in life tend to create highly technically proficient works that have no soul, or the compelling nature of their early, flawed works. It seems like a cruel paradox designed to frustrate the creative person. But I'm getting off the subject.

You've got to do a lot work. You've got to do a lot of copying. Many commercial artists spent hours _tracing_ the figures in comic books to train their hand and eye, to get the proportions right until they could draw them on their own. Copying for a creative person is like training wheels, but they don't often tell you that. They don't want you to think of them singing for a cover band, tracing figures in a comic book, copying a painting. There are dangers in all of this, since you can just create a lot of bad work and never learn anything. Or you can start copying and keep copying and never learn to do anything that comes out of you and your influences.

I've been afraid over the years to do a lot of work. I thought it was best for me to create a small number of really good works, by studying and calculating and then making that one great work and showing it. This hasn't worked out too well since it doesn't give you the opportunity to practice. It's difficult for me to accept that I'm going to essentially throw good ideas away. That I have this great idea nobody's ever had for a photograph or a story, but that if I create it now, I lack the skills to make it live up to my vision. It frustrates me to know that perhaps later, with more experience, I might be able to do better, to make it live up to the vision, but by that time it's already out in the wild and I can't take it back. When you're still practicing, a lot of good intuitions are going to create works that don't live up to your expectations or vision and that's sad, but that is the reality of being creative, that it requires destruction and abandonment, that it requires this period of practice when great ideas fall short of what they could have been. It is part of the paradox. Because for some artists, their early works no matter how flawed may actually turn out to have the greatest success over time and later works no matter how polished and practiced do not move people as much as the flawed but moving ones. That's perhaps something to cling to, that you early works no matter how far short they fall from your vision or technical mastery, may be compelling and moving.

I tend to quit when I reach that point of frustration that my intuition or ideas are solid but the realization and the skills required are lacking. Sometimes it is just a matter of hitting your head against a brick wall until you find the right form of expression. I spent years trying to capture life experiences in poems, stories and songs until I realized I was trying to cram square pegs into round holes. The experiences were brief, intense intuitions about the natural environment, which fit perfectly with the size, form and intention of haiku. All the other forms didn't fit, they were too long, demanded to much explication and metaphor. The haiku allowed me to do what I had always wanted to do, recreate the experience for others, not describe it, not say what it was like through metaphor, but for the reader to actually re-experience what I had experienced.

There is a balance to achieve. There is a successful watercolor artist who started out with good ambition and intuition for painting. He spent a couple of years painting up a storm, making thousands of water color images, but when he attended shows, he could tell his paintings were missing something the other watercolor artist's paintings had. His were good. The other artists thought he had talent, but in reality his paintings, even after two years of exhausting work, were mediocre. He attended university classes in painting and art theory and afterward, his paintings improved technically, but more importantly, in the ideas they expressed. He devised a new method and visual language within watercolor technique based on what he had learned about painting, design and art theory at the university, applying them to his paintings. He became a success both artistically and financially.

To get good at something creative you need to do a lot of work, practice, but you also need to know when to stop and think, evaluate what you are doing. You have to practice, since it is hard to create art works when you lack the necessary skills to create them, but you do not need to become a virtuoso to create lasting art works. Art is about the compelling nature of the work not the technical mastery.

Ira Glass on Storytelling - Part 1



I found this series of talks by Ira Glass very helpful. My high school English class also emphasized the essay paragraph and really never taught story telling. I somehow absorbed by osmosis that anecdotes were something to be avoided, but I agree with him that anecdote is the seed of the story. It's not a story yet. As Ira says, next must come an explanation of why you're spending time reading this anecdote, which he calls the "moment of reflection."

In this example, he takes advantage of the dual meaning possible in the events of the anecdote. Waking up to a quiet house might mean a pleasant Sunday morning or might mean the house is too quiet, abnormally quiet, with ensuing consequences. The example is setup well for a suspense story...it remains to be seen whether this anecdote followed by reflection is applicable to other types of stories. I suspect it is.

It's always been an obstacle to my writing, that I find material I know is compelling, but get stuck attempting to discover the story within it. For a long time, I tried to turn some significant life experiences into songs, Western poems and stories, but despite these experiences being compelling, there never seemed to be enough there to make a complete song, poem or story, until I rediscovered haiku. Immediately I recognized that I didn't need to write more lines, that what I had was perfectly sized for haiku. Not only that, but the intense, personal experiences involving intuitions about nature were the stuff of haiku.

It was also important for me to accept that whether or not the haiku were "correct" or great art did not matter to me, what mattered was the haiku for perfectly expressed what I was trying to express and what I was being compelled to express. I was satisfied that I was able to express, realize and convey my experience with fidelity and satisfaction without any regard to external requirements, such as "needing" to write down the experience in a Western poetic form because it was the only "legitimate" way. I don't care so much if they are "good" as much as I care that they represent and communicate my experiences accurately and effectively in a way that is satisfying. I can't get them out of my mind move on until then.


15 April 2008

01 April 2008

Fresh or Cooked?

In recent years tomato sauce was in the nutrition news. It turns out that cooking tomatoes makes Lycopene more available than in fresh tomatoes.

This went against the prevailing grain of nutritional thinking, which said that fresh was always better. Nutritionists argued that cooking reduced the amount of vitamins in food. They backed this up with scientific studies showing that cooking vegetables (or fruits like tomatoes) does reduce the amount of vitamins. An obsession developed over "keeping as much of the vitamins" in your food as possible. Steaming was touted as a way to avoid "losing" the vitamins into the cooking water. The typical English way of preparing vegetables was dammed as washing away nutrition. New technologies were advanced in an attempt to retain as much of the nutrients (known ones) as possible. Some radical eaters adopted entirely raw diets hoping to not lose a single molecule of nutrition. The trouble with this view, was that it overlooks the reality cooking can make certain nutrients available that are not available in fresh foods.

Why bring this up? I've been reading Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food (well, actually I read it in two days and lent it out and haven't seen it since). I had thought of this before reading his book, but I was reminded of this "paper vs. plastic" debate brought about by nutritionism and of the importance of culture to eating. The question is, how do we decide what to eat, fresh or cooked? It seems to me that food culture provides the answer to this question. A cuisine or food way develops over a long period of time to satisfy the nutritional requirements, the survival, of a people. Embodied in this food way must be the right balance between fresh and cooked.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the cooking and crushing involved in the canning process makes the Lycopene in tomatoes more available than fresh, since canned crushed tomatoes are frequently the base of pasta sauces. Because Lycopene is fat-soluble, serving cooked and crushed tomatoes in an oil-rich sauce is thought to make the nutrient more available.

If we look at Italian cuisine, we are probably going to find an optimal balance of fresh versus cooked tomatoes, otherwise the people eating according to the Italian food ways would likely be very sick. That the cuisine offers a lot of cooked tomato sauces attests to the nutritional value of sometimes cooking away those vitamins. Here is a food way that encapsulates nutritional knowledge that food science took centuries to get around to counting and measuring. Ignoring the wisdom inherent in Italian food ways is another example of nutritionism and the reductionist view of nutrition, which only considers the parts we can count and measure. It ignores what our senses, our taste and smell can tell us.

The reality is that cooking foods makes available nutritional elements unavailable in fresh food, and very like fresh food contains higher levels of other nutritional elements than after cooking. The right answer is a balance between them. We really do not know yet what nutrients are made more available by cooking, combining or processing foods. Food traditions are a good way to make the decision, given that nutritional science is still in its infancy. We can make use of hundreds or thousands of years of food tradition to answer this vexing question: fresh or cooked?

Blowing on the spark

Blowing on
the spark inflames--
a haiku.
-sek, Mar 2008

Hybrid rose

Hybrid rose--
blue sky without rain.
-sek, Feb 2008

Tomato Seeds

I don't need
a tomato
that rides
well,
a transcontinental
traveler.

I just need
a tomato
grown from
grandmother's
seeds.

I don't need
a tomato
perfectly
round,
a spherical
aberration.

I just need
a tomato
grown from
grandmother's
seeds.

I don't need
a tomato
blessed by
the grower's
association.

I just need
a tomato
grown from
grandmother's
seeds.
-sek, Mar 2008

28 March 2008

Notes on Uncommon Ground: The Mythic Eden

Our approach to nature is framed by the narrative where
"...an original pristine nature is lost through some culpable human act..."
"The myth of Eden describes a perfect landscape, a place so benign and beautiful and good that the imperative to preserve or restore it could be questioned only by those who ally themselves with evil."
Echoes the appeal to nature. The similar religious zeal with which science is protected from dissent by accusing those who question prevailing thought as either delusional or malicious. This similar approach to questioning emerges from Enlightenment thinking, ironically, since this is the source of the "question anything" admonition, yet is also the source of dogmatism, once an idea has been baptized as "fact," which can only be questioned by the allies of evil (witness the scientists who say a "new dark age" is threatened by advocates of intelligent design. The imperative becomes hysterical when the prevailing identification with an idea is threatened, the new idea threatens the utopia the person has invested in, whether religious, natural or scientific.

The most popular images in photography, since the middle of the 20th century, are pictures (surrogate realizations) of that perfect, benign and beautiful landscape depicted in the mythic Eden. These are the images of Ansel Adams, which directly contradict the humanist, compassionate, images of the social realists who vociferously rejected his work as a betrayal of their conception of art as a means for bringing about social justice. He may not have thought of it, but perhaps his critics were right, he was unwittingly bending photography to an anti-humanist agenda. One thing is sure, without the emergence of the mythic Eden into the popular consciousness in the post second world war era, his photographs would be obscure, known to only a few collectors. It was with the emergence of the cult of wilderness, centered around an "Edenic narrative" that his photographs gained wider significance. This remains the prevailing wind filling the sales of photography, perhaps it is time the wind changed.

(refer to p.37, Cronon, Uncommon Ground)

Notes on Uncommon Ground: The Appeal to Nature

"This habit of appealing to nature for moral authority is in large measure a product of the European Enlightenment."

Explains why "science" is used as a non-negotiable trump card against dissenters--one must be delusional, ignorant or malicious to oppose "scientific truth" used as a cudgel by opinion shapers to silence their enemies.

My ideal of nature has always been the one that suits humans, which we have every right and obligation to construct and maintain in order to sustain our existence. This includes the city, which I love, the suburbs, like Arlington with its special character, where I was raised and live and also love, and the country, which I am not so much in love with, but respect and enjoy visiting.

(refer to p.36, Cronon, Uncommon Ground)