30 May 2009

Google Wave and Portable Social Media

A quick observation about Google Wave.

I wrote some time ago about the problem of social media losing its social context as it moves around the digital universe. I thought some mechanism should be created to enable the social context pertaining to a unit of social media to be portable, so it moves along with it. It appears that Google Wave associates the people who pertain to a document (the authors, editors, people with access to view or edit the content, etc.) with the content in a portable way, through its "wavelets" concept.

It seems possible to share or transfer a piece of collaboratively authored content across the Wave system and into other systems with its social context intact. If so, this is a revolutionary step in the evolution of information technology. It gets my vote as the first technology I've seen that truly could be called Web 3.0, as far as I'm concerned.

It would only be right, if you downloaded a image from such a Wave based system to your pc, that it would somehow preserve the social context, perhaps with XML sidecar or embedded meta data, like the EXIF standard for photographs. The content could be uploaded back into a Wave ecosystem with its social context intact, possibly even after local edits.

27 May 2009

Is Your Life Poetry or Nihilism?

ReadWriteWeb asks this question. Poetry is reflective. Journalism also should be reflective (if all journalism were like C-SPAN, we would be better off for it). I am sure we could and perhaps will find ways to mine activity feeds for patterns and other useful information. It may find uses in many fields and places in life, perhaps even in medicine. But the real reason why there is so little reflection on the web is simply because the structures and tools of the web encourage shallow interaction, quick posts, short content, quick reads, quick writes. This is an area I've given some thought to and posted to the blog about it.

What is required is not some new gizmo for finding patterns in bits of trivial data, but tools that encourage people to slow down, to be reflective and create meaningful content. My idea presented here has been of a "quick-slow" system. This system would recognize the importance of brief, concise posts when things are happening (like you've just landed safely in an aircraft with the landing gear stuck and want to tell your friends or the world) and longer, slower, more reflective posts. This system would allow users to post concise messages like Twitter does, but those messages could be expanded on, by expanding the text or by associating longer texts with them. The idea is not entirely new. About ten years ago, I played with a prototype application trying to combine blog and wiki elements. Later, I discovered a more successful project to combine blog and wiki, and an application exists called a bliki.

What I propose is a system like Twitter, which retains its immediacy through a connection to text messaging (cell phones) and the "stream of concise posts" format, yet also provides a way to extend those posts in a meaningful way. Perhaps a user's followers could be allowed to edit the extended content, creating a community of editors and contributors.

What we really need is to encourage people who grew up "network native" to slow down and think before the write, or at the very least, if they have to capture an event or thought with quick, impressionist strokes, they or others should be able to return later after reflection to revise. A kind of "slow news" for journalism, akin to the slow foods movement, asking people to sit down and think a while before they write. This may be asking too much for journalism, but a quick-slow approach could support both quick impressions (what's new) and reflection (analysis). Moreover, this could support a collaborative approach that mixes reportage (the initial concise post, possibly with a picture) and analysis (the associated post, perhaps by an analyst).

The poet Basho revised his haiku many times over the years, sometimes refining the wording and other times he would write a new poem, depicting the same experience from a different aspect. This kind of revision and reflection should be encouraged and supported by technology. Haiku are an ideal model. Brief, concise, experiential, yet through juxtaposition and the many hours of careful writing, they convey higher truths.

I see a number of people writing on Twitter in haiku form, quite a few who are just arranging prose in haiku form and really have no understanding of haiku as an art form (poetry has to say something to be poetry, and say it in a way that affects us). I want to be clear, there is a new form of haiku practice emerging on Twitter, which is akin to the the impressionist movement in painting, where haiku are written on the spot and posted to Twitter from a cell phone. This is a new development in haiku, since most haiku are written down long after the poet has left the place of experience (not always, Basho sometimes wrote haiku and left them behind, but nearly all the haiku that reach us were probably revised many times long after he had visited the location). It bears watching.

23 May 2009

Something Must Be Going On

The heart of OCD is a feeling of "not being right" or repeating a ritual until it "feels right." A creative mathematician experiences intuition as a feeling there is "something going on here but I don't know what it is" according to William Byers in How Mathematicians Think. You were probably taught in high school that mathematics is a rigorous and logical endeavor and that for every mathematical principle there is a proof. It was implied to you that mathematicians seek out new principles by following threads of logic from an existing proof to a new proof. You were taught a myth. Most mathematical breakthroughs began with an intuition. Only later, after the instruction was explored well enough to believe it was true, to believe it was worth proving, perhaps even after it was proved to the satisfaction of the mathematician was an "official" proof created for the record. Proof comes after the fact, not before it. An interesting relationship between obsessive compulsive disorder and mathematics.

Moreover, instruction plays a vital role in creative mathematics. Just as in other creative arts, a shift of frame is required to turn the ordinary into the novel. The author relates the story of how he along with fellow mathematician John McKay noticed something curious about a single number. If you express adding one to 196884 as an equation you get 196884 = 196884 + 1. On the surface, it hardly seems worth the interest of a mathematician. You can add one to any integer on to infinity, something obvious to even non-mathematicians. What is so fascinatingly curious about this instance? As Byers writes, "...these are not just any two numbers. They are significant mathematical constants that are found in two different areas of mathematics." The relationship of the constants could not be a coincidence, thought McKay, who began a line of inquiry leading to a series of conjectures, which went under the fanciful but telling name of "monstrous moonshine." I want to linger a moment on this point. Here we have a mathematician who sees something curious, which prompts a "gut feeling" something systematic must be going on, a suggestion there may be a relationship between two systems of mathematics, who starts inquiring into the possibility, and as he finds more support for the reality of the intuition, he begins to make conjectures about how the two systems might be connected through the curiosity he discovered. At this point, we can hardly blame a mathematician for feeling he was chasing "moonshine." But that is exactly what creative people do. They chase moonshine and rainbows. Yet, somehow they end up driving the process of scientific rational, mathematical and artistic discovery. McKay's conjectures were later proved.

Byers does relate mathematical creativity to artistic creativity, observing good mathematicians (the creative ones) are very sensitive to the feeling of something going on, and ties mathematical intuition to the poet's, quoting the poet Denise Levertov saying "You can smell a poem before you see it."

This is all a blow to anyone raised on the rhetoric of rationalism. The human mind is a reasoning machine. Human beings are rational actors seeking the most efficient path. This ought to be nonsense to any carnival barker or snake oil salesman, but for most educated people it is a conceit they sustain because they enjoy the belief they are rational. Reason has become a virtue and virtues cannot be questioned.

At the bottom of human irrationality may be rational decisions, observations, the machinery of the mind is not metaphysical, but the abstract layers above the fine grain of deterministic reasoning are irrational. The mind is connected to a body. People get "gut feelings" as their mind tries to tell itself something from its emotional, pattern recognizing centers. How else could the pattern recognizing centers of the brain communicate with this supremely rational being, other than by kicking it in the gut?

I take away from this you will not be a creative scientist, mathematician or musician unless you learn to use your intuition. Exercise your curiosity. Keep a childlike sense of astonishment about the world around you or the inner worlds you explore. Experiment. Follow instruction. Don't worry about the result, the path to a Nobel prize in mathematics is not by seeking that which is likely to win a prize, but by following up an intuition, seeing where the thread will lead, without any thought to where it will go, other than to satisfy curiosity and that feeling of something must be going on.

21 May 2009

New Tools for Men of Letters (or Not)

"The art of conversation, with its counterpart the dialogue as a literary form for presenting ideas, has also declined since the days of Galileo, while the art of advertising has advanced. Advertising is easily recognized as the literary form that most completely responds to the technique of the printing press, because it demands, above all else, a numerous and receptive "public" of readers."
New Tools for Men of Letters
The Yale Review, Spring 1935.
Sounds a lot like Twitter, does it not? The success of Twitter is largely due (as has been generally true of web services) because of the possibilities inherent in the medium for promotion and self-promotion, or advertising. Now, since helping independent farms survive is another fascination of mine, I believe using Twitter for self-promotion may be beneficial, but it is important to recognize how much our tools are influenced by advertising. Also, it is important to note how technology shapes culture. Technology often defines what is possible in art or culture, and then shapes its direction and expression (think of the woodcut or electric guitar and the idioms of graphic art and music that sprang from the technology). So Twitter is not always good for us, like eating too much cake, because it is a medium that "demands ... a numerous and receptive 'public' of readers" and authors that meet the demand. Of course, all good authors keep the audience in mind while they write, but Twitter and concise social messaging systems orient our writing and conversation toward the jangle of advertising.

We hear a lot of talk about conversation on the web, but there it seems very lacking in real conversation. I learned recently that Ward Cunningham when he originally envisioned the wiki, believed people would begin with conversation and then shape the results into an article, which would then be refined collaboratively. As it turned out, authorship on most wikis occurs in reverse, with articles being started then shaped by conversation (if we are lucky).

Ever since I made my first foray into the world of networked content and community, starting with bulletin boards and then moving onto the web, I have been fascinated by the idea of capturing expertise and knowledge "lost" in conversations. Forums, discussion groups, bulletin boards, message systems, all formats for conversation are ephemeral. When a person asks a question on a help forum, the answers they receive are generally lost. The web made it possible to ask a search engine a question and bring up one of these threads of conversation archiving knowledge.

Much of the knowledge of experts falls into the category of "folk wisdom" or "folk knowledge." This may upset some rationalists who believe all knowledge is found in books, which are the mechanisms that "separate us from the medieval" by storing knowledge without the requirement of memory. The reality is that many of the solutions for common problems coders face on a daily basis are not written down in books. A book is generally written by an academic about generalities or abstract theories. Or it is a technical cookbook about a particular language or technology. Many of the solutions for little quirks, bugs and problems solved with little tricks or algorithms are passed from one coder to another by oral tradition, sharing code, looking at other people's code or in forums. Coding is not the only professional or practice that this process occurs within, but serves as an example.

One of the great problems of the web is how to capture the knowledge being generated by this process of dialog about small problems. It is a Long Tail problem. It is a "exponential" problem because it consists of very small parts that add up to a larger whole, which exercise a large influence over our life (think of software controlling aircraft of a medical robot). It does not just apply to coding, but to any knowledge.

Not only would it be good to capture this knowledge in a better way than just stumbling on a solution in a forum or blog post, it might prove beneficial to author a work "conversation first," like the old carpenter's adage to measure twice, cut once (of course, real carpenters use a template but that is another story) .

In a way, Twitter achieves the conversation part, but as I've observed before, lacks the means to capture the essence of a valuable conversation (other than favorite tweets). What could be a first step would be to allow favorite tweets to be organized by tag and the browsed like a social bookmarking site. The better solution would be to enable Twitter users to create a wiki page for extending the thought or observation in the tweet collaboratively, perhaps allowing followers to edit the content. That is the idea I will be working on, if I can get some time away from farmfoody.org and folkstreams.net activities.

17 May 2009

By Twine or By Time?

I ran across an interesting answer in an interview about Twine:

[Nova Spivack] I think the above solution would work for this too. Basically you are asking for a new view of the content – not “by twine” or “by time” but “by popularity” or “by relevance to me”.

Notice the question being posed. What he is asking is, why don't you like the view our "intelligence" provided, why do you insist on these existing, simplistic views like by time or popularity?

The last is odd. "Relevance to me" is the primary criteria for all information I want to receive. Even if I don't yet know it is relevant, such as when a person I follow in Twitter shares something I've never seen before and would never have found on my own. Do you understand? Even that is relevant to me. Everything I want is relevant to me.

I understand what they mean though. They mean serendipity. Like overhearing a snatch of conversation in Twitter by seeing posts by friends of your followers, but who you do not follow. But it still is relevant to me, you're just increasing the chaos in my information feed. Perhaps what we need is a "volume control" on chaos in information filtering systems.

Moreover, I suspect that humans being humans, really want to order information in the ways they are familiar with, the way their brain was designed to process information through evolutionary psychology (hmm, this is a new kind of "design" process, contradictory to the meaning of design, but seems appropriate to say design, designed by evolution). The upshot of this is people still want to order things by time or popularity. What other measures are there than the one's we've known?

Authorship: When we buy a book because the author's name is on the spine or cover in 96pt type. We are buying authority.

Sharing. When we "hear it through the grapevine" from our friends. Another high trust information source.

Some finding aids are a form of recommendation, as when we used to go to the reference desk librarian and ask for a book on a subject. This is a kind of sharing.

Look at the role trust plays in gathering and accepting information. Yet, we trust the smartness of crowds (or at least the smartness of cliques) at Wikipedia. I use it all the time and find the information is always a good starting point, usually reliable for technical information.

With trust comes the opportunity for abuse of power. The power of authority to stifle innovation and knowledge, to be used for sustaining false views (think of how the view of the Amazon civilization by anthropologist maintained for a hundred years turned out to be completely wrong and opposite to reality, despite the application of the "scientific method" and mountains of "evidence" all chosen, selected by a reductionist process, which only knows what it measures, can only measure what it sees).

15 May 2009

Trouble in dead trees and inky fingers land

Newspapers and thinking the unthinkable

An excellent analysis of the situation newspaper based journalism is in.

I like the idea of micro-payments for content, such as New York Times articles. The only problem I have with it and why I would be reluctant to use it, is simply that I have to pay for the article before I've read it. Even if I saw an excerpt, it might not be enough to determine whether it is worthwhile or not. A solution for this problem might be found in social networking. I usually read articles my friends share with me (by sending a link in email or chat). I would be much more willing to pay for an article they recommend. Keep the price low and integrate with a social sharing system and it might work as long as the payment is by an "easy button."

The greater problem is content and authorship is changing radically with digital content available through the network, given the unlimited perfect copying and access without distribution. What we are seeing is a working out of the many pieces loosely joined paradigm described a decade ago. The newspaper started as a handwritten piece of paper passed around coffee shops in Enlightened London. I see nothing sacred about its continued existence.

The problem of journalism online is of course that Twitter is the new journalism but the content is too brief, chaotic and frequently idiotic. Micro-blog formats do encourage conciseness and sharp thinking, but they also promote a hyperactive and fragmentary view of subjects. As I wrote in my blog, there needs to be a "slow thought" or "slow news" or such movement (like the Slow Food movement), which you might say is what blogs already give, but not really.

04 May 2009


There is a good article on the principles driving the development of stackoverflow.com, a site where programmers get help with their coding problems on ReadWriteWeb.

I was particularly struck by the design points where Spolsky highlights the frustration created wrong answers and obsolete results.

I can remember when I was able to circumnavigate the web through a search engine for the topic of history of photography. It was that small. I could see everything there was to see about history of photography online in a week, a week of drudgery wading through duplicate results page after duplicate results page, until I had made sure I had seen everything about my topic. Although filled with a fair amount of junk and duplicates, I was still able to find a single web page if it contained sufficiently unique keywords, until about a year before Google emerged, I had relied on AltaVista to take me back to a web page in one go, when I could not remember where I had found a code solution on some obscure personal page, for example. Then the search engines began to fail me, and single pages I had found before became nearly impossible to find, but eventually, search engine technology improved and with Google, you could find that one blog page with the coding. That was one the solution to the problem of finding things.

Spolsky is right to observe the problem now is that search is failing to distinguish between correct and incorrect answers; between current and obsolete answers to technical questions.

When I first started programming using Microsoft Visual C++ (I was just a dabbler), I had a question about how to render bitmap graphics. I turned to the library of articles and code intended to help developers. I was happy when search quickly turned up an article on how to introduce bitmaps into your application. After an hour or two of reading, it slowly dawned on me the author was not talking about what I was familiar with, Microsoft Foundation Class applications. I was seeing unfamiliar code and unfamiliar techniques. I glanced up at the date. The article was from the mid 1990s. It was about coding C under Windows before MFC was introduced. The first, supposedly most relevant, documents search had brought up from MSDN was completely obsolete and about coding without an application framework. I had wasted hours reading the wrong articles.

Stackoverflow.com is an example of a great site. It is well designed, the developers learned the lessons of the last fifteen years of web technology and applied them. It is clean, beautifully presented and well organized site. I have to admit they did right what I failed to do with phphelp.com, which started by envisioning many of the same goals. They had to courage to go ahead with "soft security," collaborative editing, and content surfacing and valuing through a user voting system. Of course, with the volume of content and edits, such tools are necessary. What two humans could watch and police such a flow of content while doing their day job? User contributed and curated content is the only rational answer.

(By the way, it would probably be better to describe their principles as being informed by behavioral economics or an evolutionary branch of the field, than anthropology or social psychology, I feel the way people use voting systems to surface content, how "soft" social engineering strategies are employed on wikis, etc. to be close to the phenomena studied by behavioral economics, not just financial choices.)

03 May 2009

Snowball, the Dancing Bird

A video of a dancing bird has become the latest YouTube sensation. Some people thought the bird's performance was faked, but for me, it is not surprising, given the sophisticated ability birds demonstrate for manipulating pitch and rhythm in their songs, that a bird shows the ability to keep time with music. Neuroscientists, including John Iversen of the Neurosciences Institute, have studied the dancing bird and confirm it is capable of extracting a beat from sound.

What impressed me most about Snowball's performance is when he lifts his leg and gives it a little shake before bringing it down. As the investigators mention, it may be prompted by the pace being too fast to put his foot all the way down in time with the faster beat, but it piques my curiosity further. It appears Snowball is dividing the beat when he waves his foot, into two or three little waves, which if I am seeing it correctly, suggests birds are capable of division of the beat and perceiving and manipulating a metrical framework. This is simply astonishing were it be to true, but perhaps not unexpected given the sophistication of bird vocalization and communication. It is one thing for a bird to keep time with a beat and an entirely different for a bird to exhibit division of the beat.

When people sing (or compose a melody to sing) the tones are not of arbitrary duration. No one could sing a song consisting of a series of tones of arbitrary duration measured to fractions of a second. Could you imagine signing a melody: A 1000ms, F 1500ms, E 500ms, D 1000ms, A 1000ms? The human mind is not well suited for measuring duration in milliseconds on an ordinary basis (we can leave out extraordinary abilities some humans may possess or develop). What if someone asked you to pick up the pace to sign faster? Each duration would have to be recalculated down to the millisecond, in your head. For this reason, music is organized by relative measures of duration.

In reality, when people sing or play music, they use simple division of the beat to measure duration. This is usually achieved through the division of a steady beat by whole fractions, usually simple divisors, like two or three. The most basic division of the beat is by two. When a tone of shorter duration than the beat is required, the melody will use a tone one half of the beat, or one quarter or one eighth and so on, down to the ability of humans to resolve divisions of time. The other main division of the beat observed in music is by three. So for every beat you have the possibility of three tones, six tones, twelve tones and so on. The human ability for perceiving and manipulation this time structure is sophisticated. Musicians can anticipate the division of future beats, playing notes that persist across multiple divisions of the beat or create "holes" or silences for certain beats, playing with the listeners expectations (this is called syncopation). I have to wonder if the small movements he makes dividing the beat follow any ornamentation of percussion or melody in the song. In the background, another bird can be seen bobbing his head to the beat, in a clear parallel to human "head banging."

Although I would have to watch a lot more video to be sure, what I have seen suggests he may be dividing the beat and deserves further investigation. I would not be surprised to find that birds do erect a sense of metrical time in sound and can mentally divide the beat and even anticipate it, perhaps even perceive syncopation. It is fascinating to watch Snowball lose and pick up the beat again.

I did watch a couple of video clips. At about 2:00 into the following video he lifts his foot and waves time to the beat, but does not divide it.

In the following video, notice how he keeps the beat when Stevie Nicks sings "ooh, ooh" on the beat? This suggests he has an expectation of the beat even when the beat is not marked by a percussive instrument. At about 1:05 he may have divided the beat with a wave. He does lose the beat more frequently when based only on Nick's vocals or less percussive sections. At 2:31 he appears to divide the beat with a wave again. And at 2:56. I'm not sure if he's just losing the beat or dividing it...but this is a seriously important question about the intelligence of birds. At 4:43 also.

(Note: The time required for a complete cycle of A above middle C is 2.27 milliseconds and a sixteenth note at a metronomic pace of 60 clicks per second is 250 milliseconds, according to Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millisecond 2009)