Graphic Literacy

John Udell laments the tendency for vendors, including Macromedia, Microsoft, and Apple to hype next-generation graphics capabilities with tasty eye candy that doesn’t help users create valuable visualizations, and doesn’t give users a compelling reason to use the technology.
Udell cites Tufte as the guru of graphic communication, suggests the need for easier-to-use new tools. But tools are only part of the answer. Nifty visualization tools have underperformed for about fifteen years that I’ve noticed.
It’s not enough to show pretty pictures — you need to have something to say. Tufte’s perennial complaint is “Chart Junk” — frivolous pictures that don’t say anything. Powerpoint and friends enabled people to make pointless pretty pictures long before the current generation of graphical infrastructure. People don’t know how to tell compelling and meaningful stories with visualizations.
A word processor doesn’t make eloquent prose on its own — and graphical tool tool won’t create meaningful visualizations.
In the social network analysis of Ziff Davis Media, we started with a story — teams of writers, editors, developers, and marketers collaborating across space and group boundaries — and questions about the intensity and frequency of collaboration.
Here’s the picture . And the story.

Agile vs. open

The two liveliest software development models are open source and agile.
In some ways, these models are orthogonal. Open source is primarily a licensing model. Open source projects can use agile practices — short cycles, test-first, pairing — or they can have long cycles with compartmentalized development. Agile is a set of development methods which can be used with open or proprietary licences.
In another way, they seem to conflict. Classic open source projects are put together by programmers seeking to “scratch their own itch”. Agile projects are oriented around meeting the needs of a customer.
Agile projects bring the customer on the team; make the customer responsible for setting priorities; develop shared understanding of requirements with conversations remembered as stories. The best way to make sure customers get what they want is to give them software soon, and let them respond to real stuff.
By contrast traditional development processes formalize customer requirements in long, structured requirements documents, which get delivered in big lumps of software. The goal of management during the development cycle is to fend off changing customer requests.
The extreme open source position contends that software developers won’t ever develop for other people unless they have to. This can be explained as Asperger’s — a physiological lack of empathy. Or it can be explained as a Romantic/Bohemian view of artistry — true artists paint and poets write for themselves and their muse, and their small group of starving but virtuously anti-bourgeois friends.
The extremes are wrong. Introversion isn’t “better”, open source doesn’t have to be solipsistic, and development for money doesn’t have to be corrupt.
Introversion isn’t better I think that the Romantic view of open source software is as fallacious in software as it is in art. Artists have always had relationships with audiences — Homer was a storyteller, Shakespeare was a crowd-pleaser. There are always “artists’ artists” — those whose work is difficult and revered by the cogniscenti. Software made for customers isn’t guaranteed to be bad any more than art made for audiences.
Open source can have empathy The goodness of the Mozilla project disproves the notion that open source projects make software that only ubergeeks love. The Mozilla crew are building lovely software — see the Scott Collins interview over at Ars Technica.
Commercial development can have integrity Agile development practices are intended to work around structural temptations for commercial projects to be build on lies. First, salespeople lie — they promise things to customers without listening or wanting to believe developers about how long things take. Then, developers lie. Out of eagerness to please or fear, they tell management and sales what they want to hear. Reality intrudes eventually. Customers get mad. Really mad customers sue. Agile planning is based on continual delivery and continual conversation, to avoid the built-in temptations for lies and self-deception.
Money communicates priorities When people are developing for others, money focuses attention. When customers want things that don’t yet exist, dollars vote. Willingness to pay focuses the mind of the customer on what’s important to them, and the developer on what’s important to the customer.
What do you think?

People Oriented Automation

from Loosely Coupled Blog

One of the reasons why businesses want more agile IT is that today’s flatter management structures depend on giving greater autonomy to individual managers and workers. The trouble with traditional enterprise software is that it’s rooted in an organizational model that assumes a large bureaucracy shuffling documents around according to preset procedures. Whereas 21st-century business is carried out by delegating decision-making responsibility as far down the reporting line as possible. This doesn’t have to imply loss of management oversight, provided there’s a way of tracking and monitoring what’s actually happening at the end of the line (in truth, this is a far more realistic position than the command-and-control model anyway, which in spite of whatever the procedures manual actually prescribed, was always liable to subversion by individual acts of initiative, incompetence or rebellion.)


Now contractors in Iraq are above the law?

According to the Washington Post, Iraq’s incoming government is opposing “a U.S. demand that thousands of foreign contractors here be granted immunity from Iraqi law, in the same way as U.S. military forces are now immune”.
Meanwhile, the the Pentagon has awarded a $293-million contract to create the world’s largest private army, to a mercenary firm with a reputation for smuggling.
John Robb, who’s been doing an amazing job covering networked guerrilla war, cites CorpWatch on the the contract awarded to Aegis a company headed by Lieutenant Colonel Tim Spicer, a former officer with the SAS (NOTE: this is disputed), an elite regiment of British commandos, who has been investigated for illegally smuggling arms and planning military offensives to support mining, oil, and gas operations around the world. On May 25, the Army Transportation command awarded Spicer’s company, Aegis Defense Services, the contract to coordinate all the security for Iraqi reconstruction projects.
Also via John Robb, the New York Times has a scathing analysis of Aegis and US mercenary policy by Peter Singer, author of “Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry.”
The claim that the US invaded Iraq to bring democracy and rule of law does not sound very credible.

Janis Karpinski blows whistle

Her career is surely over already, good for her for speaking out.
Karpinski told the BBC that military intelligence came to Abu Graib, took over interrogation, and told soldiers to treat prisoners ‘like dogs,” using methods from Guantanamo. Then she is blamed for the torture that occured on her watch.
The Washington Post has documents showing that General Sanchez, the senior military officer in Iraq, authorized high-pressure interrogation techniques borrowed from Guantanamo.
Looks like there might be enough free press and brave public servants to get the US out of the Gulag business.
Stalin and Saddam Hussein could get away with decades of criminality because they could have disloyal officers and informants shot. Our whistleblowers can show more loyalty to US principles than to their bosses and live.


Is there any truth to the tale that vitamin B discourages mosquitoes?
They always find me. In a group of people, I’m the one usually covered in bites. It’s been a wet late Spring/early Summer in Austin. Mosquito repellent is somewhat helpful for spending long amounts of time outdoors near water or at sunset, but doesn’t seem like a good everyday solution — I get bitten on the few square inches I forgot to cover. And covering oneself with greasy toxin everytime one goes out seems like a cure worse than the disease.
Do others really cover up in mosquito repellent every time they leave the house? Any better solutions than staying indoors during the summer, and trying not to open the door too often?

Weblog and wiki rhetoric

Weblogs and wikis are very similar in some ways. Weblogs force the reader’s attention to new posts. Wiki denizens check “recent changes” addictively to see what’s been added or changed.
But there’s a key difference in genre. With weblogs, it’s considered bad form to revise. Blog readers monitor RSS feeds, and pounce when their newsreader tells them that someone has adjusted a story after publishing it.
Wiki pages are designed to be revised. Classic wikis, like Ward’s Wiki, and Meatball Wiki accrete and polish entries over time.
Weblogs foster amnesia. There’s a relentless push for novelty, at the expense of thinking more deeply about old ideas. This weblog really wants to be a wikiblog, so I can post new ideas, and then go back, add content, improve writing, add references.

Doc: does RSS replace email?

Doc Searls muses about whether RSS is a good replacement for email. Doc hypothesizes that RSS is better because RSS is part of a “relationship.”
This misses some key differences between good email, bad spam, RSS, and social network tools.
Spam isn’t bad because it is unsolicited. Spam is bad because spammers deluge us with millions of unsolicited messages, and don’t let us get away.
RSS makes it a little bit easier to subscribe and unsub, but that was easy enough with responsible mailing lists. A good RSS interface is a little bit easier to manage than a mail-reader — because RSS content is transient — it doesn’t pile up the same way unread email does.
But signing up for an RSS subscription isn’t a “relationship”, any more than signing up for a magazine is a relationship. If the information flow is one-way, then it’s publishing or marketing, not a “relationship”
It’s possible to have “relationships” facilitated by RSS, but that only happens when the receiver talks back — clicking through to the source to comment or hyperlink or trackback.
The problem with Spam is that it’s unsolicited BULK email. The opposite of unsolicited isn’t targeted “Dear Adina” — it’s really and truly personal.
I received a wonderful letter of introduction from a friend and colleague the other day. He introduced me to someone he know, who had common interests, and might be a potential customer. The letter was unsolicited, but this was a good thing — it was serendipitous and welcome.
LinkedIn and its counterparts purport to improve the process of personal introduction. But often they make personal introductions worse, by replacing thoughtful individual notes with form letters that strip out the emotional and substantive context that makes one want to reply.
Spam is hostile. RSS and LinkedIn are merely impersonal. Subscriptions and form letters aren’t relationships.
Conversations are.