Grits for Breakfast

On the inverse of apathy, Austinites and out-of-towners might want to check out Grits for Breakfast, a new blog by Scott Henson.
It’s a good blog to read for personally-engaged reportage in the middle of a deep story. Scott is part of the ACLU-Texas team working to reform the criminal justice system. The latest post describes a Town Hall Meeting in Grand Prairie, halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, where Latin American groups are allied with a conservative Republican politician to moderate the madness of criminal justice in Texas, where there are 1,941 separate felonies on the books, including ‘electrocuting fish,’ and in some cases, prostitution, graffiti, and stealing cable. One in 11 Texans is a felon, and one in 20 is currently in prison, on probation, or on parole.
In classic blog form, Scott discloses biases; he’s working for the conservative Republican representative’s reelection campaign, despite differences on abortion and other social issues because of Allen’s leadership on criminal justice reform.
With persistence and savvy, Scott and others on the ACLU-TX team are building alliances and changing minds, engaging in the kind of political conversation across traditional barriers that Lessig wants to revive.

Slacker trilogy

The morning after I saw Slacker, I overheard a couple of coffee-shop customers swapping anecdotes about automotive repo jobs. Preachers, apparently, are particularly self-righteous about avoiding bills. One local dealership is trying to improve the quality of its credit portfolio by making the salesmen responsible for reposessing cars from their own delinquent customers.
As a particpant and observer of Austin’s cafe culture, I expected Slacker to be a touchstone to Austin’s cafe culture, and so it was. The pickup conversation with the dogged conspiracy theorist, off-kilter petty scams, windy pop-culture critiques, convoluted romantic and roommate drama, each vignette unfolds after the other, in desultory succession.
Immediately after I watched the movie, I wasn’t sure how much I liked it. At the end of each scene, the camera follows a new person off to another weird tangent; without plot and character development, jolts of recognition and amusement war with ambient boredom. The film improves with recollection and comparison.
Clerks built on the low-budget, indy cred of Slacker. The setting is North Jersey, the anomie is post-highschool rather than post-college. Wierd misadventures afflict the convenience store clerks; a rabid anti-smoking advocate riles up customers coming in to feed their habit; a streethockey game is rescheduled to the store’s roof during business hours. Several of the anecdotes are truly funny, other scenes may have been funnier in brainstorming than onscreen, like the customer who obsessively checks for the perfect egg.
Despite the similar low budget, anedotal plot, and slacker characters, Clerks is a more conservative, wannabe Hollywood movie. Unlike Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith cobbles together a plot, tacks on a love interest – Dante, the antihero schlemiel clerk, has an affectionate, go-getter girlfriend but pines for a dramatic and inconstant ex. Smith adds a pop-psych denoument when Dante explains to his best friend the childhood origins of his pathologically passive attitude toward life. The Clerks have opportunities but lack get-up-and-go; there aren’t any opportunities for liberal arts grads in recessionary early 90s Austin.
High Fidelity is the slacker film turned into a sitcom, but I liked it best anyway. The John Cusack character is the owner of a small, starving-artist-snobby vintage record store in Chicago. His music geek clerks — Jack Black’s customer-hostile connoiseur and Todd Louiso’s adorable nebbish steal the show. Over the course of the movie, the characters learn to transcend slackerdom; Cusack learns that his love life is stuck on repeat breakup because he acts like a jerk; the clerks grow beyond roles as passive critics, becoming actors in love and music.
It would take a Chicago person to explain whether and how the film captures Chicago like Slacker captures the windy aimlessness of Austin cafe culture and Clerks gets the gritty ambition of working class North Jersey. I suspect that it doesn’t. Translated from Nick Hornsby’s London novel, some of the social types don’t ring quite right; the skater punks would probably be better as London working class; the egocentric high-chic girlfriend and would probably be better as British bohemian upper class.
Directed by veteran English-gone-Hollywood director Stephen Frears, the movie is more polished and more conventional than the other two slacker films. The movie tells the story of the sentimental education of geeky guys lightly and well. The retail and romantic vignettes are funny, the emotional tenor is wry and affecting.
In the week of a high-stakes election, the comedy of early 90s anomie seems far away.

“User Error” is a voting machine problem

Last weekend, frightened emails circulated around Travis County. At least one voter tried to select a straight-party Democratic ticket. When proofing the ballot, George Bush was selected for President.
Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir and the local democratic party were quick to spread the word that this was “human error and was not a machine malfunction.”
They’re doing the right thing to get the word out and ask voters to proof their ballots. But they’re missing the point about voting system design. User errors are symptoms of design flaws.
The way it happens is this. “After pressing ENTER after marking Straight Democrat, some voters inadvertently turn the SELECT wheel one click through the ballot while meaning to go to the final “PROOF” page. If you hit enter at that point, your cursor is over the first candidate on the ballot: Bush/Cheney.”
For the few steps, the user follows a pattern to make selections, and suddenly, the pattern changes. If the user doesn’t notice they change, they accidentally select the wrong candidate.
Like the infamous “butterfly ballot” in Florida, this is a design flaw with the user interface.
These types of design flaws can be uncovered with usability testing. There are well-known techniques for detecting and fixing problems in the user interface that lead users to make mistakes.
But we don’t do usability testing in Travis County. Before elections, the county does “logic and accuracy testing” to prove that the voting system generates the right results when voters make valid selection. The county puts out press releases explaining how this testing proves that the voting system is reliable.
But we don’t test what happens when voters make mistakes. Usability testing is critical for all sorts of systems — particularly systems where user choices have serious consequences like voting.
The lack of usability testing — and the lack of rigorous security testing — show that voting administration hasn’t yet caught up to the responsibility of electronic voting.

Be the Media

I read Dan Gillmor’s We the Media a few weekends ago. Good coverage of weblogs and the rise of peer media. If you’ve been reading Gillmor and watching the evolution of peer media daily, the book won’t be new. If you’re interested in the topic, it’s an excellent introduction.
A few local data points: Scott Henson’s telling stories about drug war injustice, and Mike Dahmus covers the commuter rail issue.

Interface to elections

Interface is an election-year sci-fi novel about a candidate who is remote-controlled by a biochip in his brain. Published in 1994 by “Stephen Bury”, a pen name for Neal Stephenson and his uncle, the novel is a timely satire of the campaign and media symbiosis that renders elections vulnerable to manipulation.
The best scenes have campaign consultants watching video, predicting and creating winners and losers by lighting, camera angles, and background images. Watching an African-American woman verbally demolish a neo-Nazi candidate at a Denver mall campaign stop, the crew of pollsters predict she’ll be a future president, watching only the images, and not hearing a single word.
There’s a wonderful chapter on a scandal involving the child of migrant workers turned away from surburban hospital treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning. The press flocks to the heart-rending drama. Headlines scream “BIANCA, MIRACLE GIRL.” Meanwhile, the reporters ignore the deep underlying system scandal — migrant workers routinely denied metical treatment, private justice dispensed by connected ranchers. The press coverage is vulnerable to manipulation by the politicos and pr folk who know how to create images for TV.
The sci-fi technology is moderately interesting — a biochip heals a politician incapacitated by a stroke, and wires him directly to the emotional responses of a 100 demographically representative citizens wearing biofeedback wristbands.
The thriller plot is paint-by-numbers. A shadowy network of trillionaire investors seeks to control the presidency to rescue their investments from the US national debt. The novel builds tension with several thoroughly predictable chase scenes that do little for the story, and are clearly designed for the authors’ fantasy film treatment.
Ten years after the book is published, the mass media campaigns are more expensive, at least as distracted by wedge issues and gaffes and horse race coverage.
The sinister plot is deciphered by a few heroes and antiheroes, including the “economic roadkill” in the wired-up focus group, but all the antihero has to talk back are letters to the editor and a Columbine plan.
This time around, he’d have a blog, but would it make a difference? Will peer communication yield more information to move the boulders of distortion, or simply be turned into rivulets of spin and counterspin? Some of both, I think.

Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible is the Heart of Darkness, 100 years later, reversed, with some inverse Faulkner in the mix.
A missionary family moves to the Congo, just before the end of colonial rule. From the colonial/southern gothic genre, Barbara Kingsolver inherits the trajectory toward doom; the family descends from darkly comic misadventure (birthday cake mix ruined) to escalating disasters, flood, vermin, plague, hunger, madness. Objects of affection are introduced in early chapters, and are destroyed one by one.
But the moral of the gothic classics is inverted. Rather than miscegenation as the dark secret, interracial love is a redemptive force. The tragic outcome isn’t going native, it’s failure to recognize and adapt to a culture that is rich despite physical hunger.
The writing in the different voices of the four female characters is strong, and carries the novel, along with the downward cascade of the plot. The transformation of the main characters in the crucible of African experience is moderately compelling, though somewhat schematic; the submissive wife who finally finds the strength to leave her brutal husband; the pious daughter who finally sees through her father’s illusions; the cynical daughter who learns a bit of hope, the shallow beauty who becomes a tough survivor and irredeemable racist. The women have some complexity; the men are cardboard cutout villains or heroes.
The first two thirds of the book is an agonizing slide toward the dissolution of the family and transformation of the characters over 14 months. The last third rushes through 30 years in cartoon illustration of the author’s politics, and should have been cut by a good editor.
I read Poisonwood Bible at the recommendation of a friend. I think I want to read Achebe next on African tragedy when sufficiently brave. Things Fall Apart is in an Amazon list next to Night.

Loosely Coupled

Brian Dennis does not buy the claim that social software is loosely coupled.

For a half a minute, I’d bought into loose coupling but realized that many of the services cited (Technorati, Flickr) are even more centralized than USENET ever was.

True, Technorati and Flickr and Audioscrobbler and are each centralized services. But each of these services has APIs and/or XML feeds, and these are commonly used to assemble composite services — Flickr photos posted to a 3rd party weblog, a Technorati query showing the conversation around a particular post, an Audioscrobber RSS feed showing a playlist.
The loose coupling is in the combination of tools, not each tool.

Social Software Encyclopedia

Chris Allen has done a fine service with a history of social software, tracing the origins of today’s networked communication back to the ideas of Vannevar Bush and Doug Engelbart, and several generations of computing platforms. The piece has been gathering additional references and suggestions: Pete Kaminski adds references to the 70s and 80s bulletin board era.
Jon Lebkowsky thinks he should write a book.
Seb Paquet’s been wanting to make a wiki
Shelley Powers is building here.
A timeline on the Many to Many wiki.
This calls for a good BarnRaising.

Social Software: What’s New

The question underlying Chris Allen’s valuable essay on the history of social software is, why do we need a new term? Is there anything new going on, or there just a new generation of people discovering the same old thing, like each generation of teenagers discovers sex.
People who’ve been pioneering online collaboration say that they’ve seen this all before: on Plato, in MUDs, on the Well, in Usenet, in academic writing for decades.
Is there anything new about what we’re doing now? Chris Allen’s question prompted some reflection. The answer, I think, is yes. And the measure of the answer is the internet and the web.
These differences can be seen in three ways, which play out technically and socially.
A network of networks: multi-scale design patterns
The ubiquity of the net has dramatically expanded participation in the ideas and practices cultivated in hothouse MUDs, BBS systems, and LAN-based groupware. There are about 4 million active bloggers, according to the stats at Technorati. Wikipedia has over 350,000 articles as of this writing, and over 100,000 contributors. There are tens of millions playing multi-player role-playing games.
The novelty is not just large scale. Usenet is big — one usenet service claims that there over 25 million users participate in Usenet newsgroups every day according to one Usenet access service.
What’s new are the design patterns that build community and sense at a variety of scales at once.
* Group blogs like Austin Bloggers and the Seattle Weblog Portal aggregate individual voices into a community center.
* Wikipedia helps subcommunities maintain the entries on their favorite topics by providing notifications to the small group of people who care about each obscure topic.
* Technorati helps discover a conversational thread across multiple weblogs.
* helps discover who else is reading and bookmarking a web page.
Physical cities have had multi-scale design patterns for thousands of years, with courtyards and sidewalks, parks, plazas and promenades. Networked groups have started to develop these patterns recently.
Addressibility and groupforming
Social software contributions have addressible links. A wiki page has a link which is a name, helping groups build sense on a larger scale over time. Weblog posts have permalinks. Addressible links are, of course, core to the web as a whole. Social software tools make it easy to create content in little, addressible chunks, and they add semantic meaning (wikis names) and social meaning (the weblog of a person or group).
This trait makes it easy to discover and assemble conversation and meaning. All Consuming is able to find the blog posts that write about specific books; Technorati is able to assemble the blog posts that talk about a specific topic.
The conversation discovery tools are powerful socially, not just intellectually. Because weblogs and wikis enable the reader to respond, explicitly with comments and edits, or implicitly with trackbacks and links, it’s easier to meet people and form groups — with or without explicit “social networking” features.
Of course, it was possible to create systems with addressible microcontent and links in the experimental hothouses and corporate walled gardens in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s. The scale, ubiquity, and discoverability in the public net versions make these concepts more valuable, and open to flexible experimentation.
Loose coupling and social boundaries
The prevalence of simple web services is making it possible to pull services together. This isn’t just about techie lego joy. As danah boyd says, it’s about decoration and social identity.
People use flickr to share photos with friends, and import the pictures into personal and group blogs, to communicate personal and shared esthetic and identity. Publishing a bloglines subscription list becomes a statement of one’s interests and communities. People add Technorati references and sidebars to weblogs, making it easy to step from a front porch out the the neighborhood. People share playlists with Audioscrobbler and broadcast their identity through music and discover others with similar tastes.
Individuals and groups use these tools to express who they are, and to assemble signs of individual and group identity around their personal and group addresses.
Loose coupling lets groups expand boundaries, as well as define boundaries. Corporate groups and local political groups can use RSS and web services aggregation to build composite feeds that bring in relevant content, conversations and data from the outside world and broad organizational scope, as context for local collaboration.
MUDs had build-your-own environments in text-based online systems starting in 1979. The current generation is more popular, public, standard, addressible, and multimedia, leading to recombinant experimental growth.
The internet and web embed powerful technical design patterns: a network of networks; addressible microcontent, loosely coupled services. These design patterns facilitate new social patterns: multi-scale social spaces, conversation discovery and groupforming, personal and social decoration and collaborative folk art.
There’s a generation of innovation and experimentation that is new, that’s going on around us, and that’s worthy of a name. The language would be poorer if we didn’t have a way to group Flickr, LiveJournal,, Technorati, and Audioscrobbler, or to tell these things apart from earlier generation mainframe and LAN-based hothouse systems.
p.s. I know that multi-player games are an integral part of the story, but someone else will have to work on that chapter. The things that speak to me intellectually and emotionally are those that build relationships (LiveJournal), build shared art and culture (Flickr, AudioScrobber, Wikipedia). Shoot-em-ups and D&D fantasies don’t speak to me, so I don’t know the communities or vocabulary.
p.p.s. This is a draft. I would love for it to be revisable as part of a larger project.

A gaffe is in the mind of the beholder

The response to Kerry’s mention of Dick Cheney’s daughter is a Rorschach test that diagnoses three different attitudes toward gay people.
1) Gay is normal. among the young, libertarian, and socially tolerant, gay identity is like height and hair color – a neutral identifying characteristic. Mentioning Mary Cheney highlights the hypocrisy of Republicans who advocate laws to restrict the rights of people in their own families.
2) Gay is embarrassing. Among ordinary older folk, being gay is still embarrassing. People who are socially prejudiced may not be in favor of laws restricting the rights of gay people, but they consider it rude to identify a gay relative in public. Lynne Cheney’s reaction is an example of this attitude.
3) Gay is evil. Among Christian right wingers, being gay is evil. People who didn’t know that Mary Cheney is lesbian might not vote for her dad because he didn’t successfully protect her from Satan and forbid her sinful lifestyle.
It’s clear from the reaction that Kerry miscalculated. If Kerry spoke naively, as a New Englander who takes a level of social tolerance for granted, he underestimated the strength of garden-variety social prejudice. If Kerry meant to speak simultaneously to groups #1 and #3, then the tactic backfired badly by not taking #2 into account. The Rove Machine won the spin by building an alliance between groups #2 and #3, the prejudiced and the fundamentalists.
To those who watched the debates, Kerry clearly won, according to surveys of debate-watchers. He came across as competent and compassionate, stronger on international and domestic issues. But to the larger population who only see snippets of spin on TV, Kerry comes off as a bad guy.
Political speech is difficult because of the need to communicate to people with different worldviews and vocabularies. Great political speech builds common ground. Ordinary political speech is slippery and calculating — it is intended to mean different things to different people. Ineffective political speech fails both ways — it doesn’t build common ground, and it doesn’t assemble a majority by meaning different things to different people.