05 January 2010

Irons in the Fire

The blacksmith knows, when you have too many irons in the fire, the iron you leave in the fire will burn before you have time to hammer the iron you're working on. The expression 'having too many irons in the fire' comes from blacksmithing and stands for having too many tasks competing for your attention. I just realized how accurately it describes being overwhelmed by stressful commitments.

The trouble is, in life, we often need to put several irons in the fire. For example, you may need to go back to school for continuing education, but you can't go right away, so you make plans, you make an appointment for the required tests and schedule of classes, you anticipate months of class work. This one task, going back to school, becomes an 'iron in the fire.'

While you're anticipating going back to school, other things will come up, daily life, a new person, a new project, but all the worries of going back to school will still be on your mind. As life goes on, we collect more tasks and responsibilities that stretch out over time or will need to be done in the future, along with the task's we've already begun. Each becomes an iron in the fire, until we are overwhelmed by anticipation.

The irons, the things we need to do, but can't do right away but must eventually complete, the things we start but can't or won't finish, build up in the fire until we become overwhelmed, knowing we will have to abandon some of the irons to burn or abandon the iron we're working on.

Blacksmiths have a way of dealing with too many irons in the fire. They keep some of the irons out of the fire until they are ready, until they've hammered the irons they're working on. Maybe there is some way in life to keep some of those irons beside the fire, waiting, until the ones you're hammering are done, and the ones in the fire are ready. I'm going to try to mentally pigeonhole those tasks and responsibilities, setting them down beside the fire, but out of it, waiting their turn.

By the way, I've learned (to my surprise, since it is such a traditional, low technology craft), blacksmithing is an art that can teach us a lot of important lessons. It teaches that some things can only be learned through experience. Getting good at smithing requires using the hammer. It requires creating a muscle memory of simple moves, before you can make more complicated or sophisticated ones. It requires building up sufficient muscles before you can wield the hammer effectively. It is impossible to become a blacksmith just by being an educated person and following a series of instructions in a book cold turkey, at least not without going through the actual practice of making things. Blacksmithing, is a lot like Zen, it requires practice to realize.

I don't mean the kind of practice your piano teacher had you do as a child, although that is related, but the kind practice that means actually doing something, not as a study, but as a reality. You could purposefully make simple things to teach and strengthen your muscles, but the point is that you have to do it in order to learn it, to realize it, to gain the benefits of it. Talk won't get you there. Reading won't get you there. Knowing won't get you there.

Twitter and A Flock of Seagulls, Publishing in a Networked World

I'm not going to name the site that got me starting writing this post. Its a sentiment I've seen on many sites with a traditional publishing orientation. They follow the old tradition from the age of print, where all submitted works are required to be "not published elsewhere," requiring "first print" rights and demanding every "reprint" (copy) should cite the publisher as place of first publication (what is this, vanity?).

These guidelines ignore the reality of the new age of immediacy, of information abundance, of venue abundance, the network. There is no scarcity in publication, there is no value in "first publication" or artificial scarcity on the network. The document is the conversation the conversation is the document. The old publishing world is gone, stop trying to hang on.

The attitude simply does not fit with a universe of networked information being shared and reshared by millions of people, winding its way in bits and pieces and fits and starts through the social network of friends, family, colleagues. The network is the world of social publishing.

Why? Because it is to difficult to find works online among billions of documents and uncounted trillions of ever expanding words. You just can search for things you do not know exist. The social network trades in attention, which is necessary to discover what exists, through your social contacts.

It just does not make sense to "publish" a work to a certain location (or a physical book), then try to get everyone to come read it through clever marketing. It makes no sense to prevent copying, since copies are the method by which information spreads through a social network. The idea of scarcity and exclusivity makes no sense at all in a socially networked world, unless by exclusive you mean being friends with the author.

The network, by the way, does not really need to worry about this issue of citation, since there is usually a trail back to the original author, through a 'retweet path' (if dutifully or automatically maintained) or through carrying authorship information with the work through the social network (as I've talked about here before).

As a poet, nearly every poem I write is immediately published to the social network, so I can't give anyone "first rights" to it, and moreover, that is meaningless. I noticed the Haiku Society of America states, at least for some submissions, " The appearance of poems in online discussion lists or personal Web sites is not considered publication." a much more adaptive policy.

What happens on Twitter is more like a flock of seagulls, making all references to publication, first publication, second publication utterly meaningless, as we tweet to others and they tweet back at us, retweeting and retweeting. I suppose the next thing, is they will want "first tweet" rights. I understand the goal is to keep your publication fresh, but that simply does not fit reality. It says something about a publishing world where the consumer needs to be reassured they are not being "cheated" by recieving old goods, which are turned over from elsewhere, similar to the way "shovelware" became a problem in the 1990s CDROM publishing era. I suppose the same problem exists with bloggers, twitterers, who merely repeat what others write, but I just don't see the problem. In a network world it costs nothing to unfollow or unfriend a source.

03 January 2010

"Tyler Cowen: I don't think it's a useful description to say autistics are only focused on on thing, but I would say there's a lot of tasks you can give autistics, like picking out small details in locked patterns, or picking out different musical pitches, where autistics seem especially good at attention to small detail. So if you think of the web as giving us small bits, like a tweet or a blog post is shorter than a novel, if you think of that as the overall trend, like an iPod, a song is shorter than an album. It seems that we're now all living in a world where we manipulate small bits effectively, it doesn't mean any of us is just interested in one thing, but we manipulate these small bits to create bigger ideas that we're interested in, and those bigger ideas are synthetic, and I think it's another way in which we are using information technology to mirror or mimic capabilities of autistics without usually people knowing it. "


This is what I suspected when I envisioned Strands in the late 90s, before Twitter existed. That shortening the length of information might be another instance of the medium being the message, that it might broaden the number of people writing by lowering the barrier (less memory, organization required to write), and that there might be some way of using the "many small pieces loosely joined" to create some kind of better, large paradigm of writing than the book. And perhaps we could give to writing the same kind of flexibility we give to data in relational databases, for combining, recombining in novel ways, mining and analyzing.

What if we could create a Twitter Query Language? Enabling virtual documents consisting of projections and selections of real time status streams?