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.