On hybrid forms

There’s a current of creativity flowing in communication and collaboration software, where people are blending aspects of weblogs and wikis, email and aggregation.
In the last few days, I came across a couple of examples of people discussing and experimenting with such things.
Anil Dash recently posted an essay on the “Microcontent Client.” The concept is a desktop tool that will organize all of the information fragments in one’s web experience; something that takes all of one’s RSS feeds and google searches and bookmarks and weblog entries, categorizes them, and weaves them into an organized pattern.
One of the ideas I like is having authoring and search built into one’s basic desktop toolset — personal html authoring tools seem pretty underdeveloped these days. (A friend just recommended TopStyle Pro and Dreamweaver MX).
I’m ambivalent about the notion of a managed “personal information space” with lots of aggregation feeds, nicely organized bookmarks, etc. The world is a big sea of information with a few islands of things that one pays close enough attention to organize; what feels missing is not the organizing tools but the time and attention to organize more things!
Overall, the design philosophy of the Microcontent Client feels a too “robot web” for me. Anil writes that “the passive authoring of the microcontent client creates content that even the ‘author’ doesn’t yet know they want to read”, and “users running the client will find unused processor cycles being tapped to discover relationships and intersections between ideas.”
I suppose what he means is a sort of personalized Google News or personalized Pilgrim context links; but idea of AI discovering insights while you sleep sounds sci-fi and somewhat creepy. (For the Pilgrim links, see Further Reading on Today’s Posts, below the blog entries:
Anil alludes to the reinvention of Usenet in the weblog context; but he doesn’t talk enough about the nouns and verbs of usenet — people and conversation. And therefore, I think, misses key areas of functionality, to support people having conversations and remembering what was said.
In another experiment along these lines, Bill Seitz is working on a weblog that is based on a wiki platform and is integrated with the wiki collaboration space.
I like and understand this concept better; which is to integrate the chronologically organized thoughts of weblogs with the linked, topic-organized thoughts of wikis.
One of the things that I like here is the complementarity between the weblog material that is “published”, however informally, and the wiki matrix, which is a soup of thoughts in varying levels of completeness.
The form seems well-designed to facilitate “gardening” where contextual elements are organized to support some blog topic. Google auto-links would be a nice addition. Perhaps this is what Anil meant, too; but the emphasis here is on the person, helped perhaps by the machine.
One thing that still seems unfinished in Bill’s implementation (which is brand new!) is integrating the more structured, graphical publishing of the weblog with the unstructured whiteboard of the wiki.
One benefit of weblogs is that they are conceptualized as a publishing tool; and therefore have functions for graphic presentation and structured navigation which help readers find their way around. The navigation design of a weblog is so basic that you barely notice that it is there; yet there is a set of structured conventions: the ubiquitous date-formatted posting, and also typically a title, author bios, comments, archives, and links.
Wikis have a text-editor sort of glorious simplicity, which may be wonderful for the author, who has the navigational structure in her head, but is somewhat hard on the reader who is swimming without lane markers in a pool of links. Bill has added navigational bread crumbs, and coloring for entry dates, but that’s still not enough navigational structure; I still feel rather dizzy.
Good food for thought, more toys to play with.

And as for already extinct creatures….

A few weeks back, I wrote about programs that model the development of plants. If you change the parameters of the development algorithm you generate shapes that resemble different types of plants.
Following that thread, I recently read Shapes of Time: The Evolution of Growth and Development. This is a fascinating book that looks at the mechanisms of development in animals, and how those mechanisms affect evolution.
Like the plant models on screen, developing embryos in real life follow a program, where small changes in key parameters generate major changes in shape. There’s not one program, but several; during the first phase of growth, parameters are controlled by the egg, later on by the chemical environment in the embryo; still later, by hormones, and by the ratio of cell growth to cell death. In all of these stages, changes in the quantity and timing of key parameters create changes in development.

  • In the fruit fly, the “bicoid” gene within the fertilized egg
    controls the creation of a modular body. “A gradient of
    decreasing concentration of the protein from head to tail controls
    the pattern of segmentation (p. 50).” Where the protein is found
    in high concentration, the head develops; where the concentration
    is moderate, the thorax develops; where the concentration is low,
    the abdomen develops.
  • Next, the concentration of the bicoid protein activates Hox genes,
    which control body segment development by changes in the position,
    timing, or level of their expression. For example, Hox genes
    control a protein that inhibits limb development; turn up the
    concentration of that protein, and the number of limbs declines
    from many in early arthropods to six in modern insects.
  • In a later stage of development, the chemical environment in the
    cell controls development. Increasing the concentration of one
    molecule by 1.5 times causes the molecules to develop into muscle
    cells rather than skin cells.
  • Later on, hormones control growth. The pace of growth and timing
    of of life stages affects animal size and behavior. In ants, for
    example, the timing of exposure to hormones controls the emergence
    of different castes of ants. Ants that are exposed to more
    juvenile hormone grow for longer, and become large, fierce
    soldiers instead of smaller, more docile workers.
  • Another mechanism is the reduction in the rate of cell death.
    Fingers and toes arise because of the rapid death of cells between
    the digits; a slower rate of cell death results in webbed feet (as
    in ducks and turtles).

Changes in the developmental program may help to explain the emergence of new forms – for example, the evolution of four-legged creatures from fish, according to one recent hypothesis. Fins and limbs arise from the same underlying structure, but the growth parameters are controlled differently. A limb bud has both mesodermal cells (which evolve into flesh and bone), and ectodermal cells, which evolve into skin. In fish, the ectoderm rapidly folds over, halting the growth of mesoderm, and further growth is the skinlike tissue of a fin. In lobe-finned fishes, which represent an intermediate evolutionary step, the mesoderm grows for longer before the ectoderm folds, resulting in a fin that has a stub of flesh and bone, and an extension of fin. In tetrapods, the mesodermal growth continues for much longer, creating a long structure of flesh and bone; with a remnant of nail, claw or hoof at the end.
Changes in the developmental program enable organisms to adapt to new niches. In western Australia, along the sloping bed of the ocean shelf, there can be found fossil brachiopods that become progressively younger-looking as the gradient ascends. The pedicle (sucker-foot) is larger relative to the rest of the body in younger creatures; a slower growth rate would result in adults who were better able to stick to the rocks in wave-wracked shallow waters.
The application of this theory to the evolution of humans is quite fascinating, but this post is quite long enough; read the book if you’re interested; or ask me and I’ll summarize 🙂
There were two main things about the book that were interesting to me.

  • First was the concept and the illustration of the algorithm of
    development, from egg to adult organism.

  • Second is the implication of these algorithms for evolution. It seems
    pretty surprising that small mutations and genetic recombinations can
    generate large change in a relatively short time. It’s less strange when
    you think about the development process, where small changes can have
    big effects in the resulting organism; and changes that result in
    competitive advantage are passed on.

That’s what I liked about the book. The author’s interests were less computational — the main thesis of the book is about a debate in the field of biology that has been raging since Darwin. The debate is about whether evolutionary development represents “progression” from simplicity to complexity, or “regression” from complexity to simplicity.
Ernst Haeckel, the 19th century biologist who coined the term “biology”, theorized that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” According to this theory, development retraces the steps of evolution; embryos of mammals pass through developmental stages that resemble worms, then fishes, then reptiles, then the ultimate mammalian stage. The theory was influenced by an ideology that saw evolution as progression to ever-greater levels of complexity, with humans, of course, at the top of the chain. This theory reigned as scientific orthodoxy until the 1930s.
The problem with the theory is that there is plenty of evidence that contradicts it. In the ’30s, biologists Walter Garstang and Gavin de Beer advocated the opposite theory, pedomorphosis. This theory proposed that as organisms develop, they become more like the juveniles of the species. There is plenty of evidence showing this pattern. For example, some species of adult ammonites have shapes that are similar to the juveniles of their ancestor species. According to this theory, human evolution is the story of Peter Pan; we are chimps who never grow up.
Following Stephen Jay Gould, McNamara thinks both sides are right; and he supports Gould’s thesis with troves of evidence from many species across the evolutionary tree. Organisms can develop “more” than their ancestors, by growing for a longer period of time, starting growth phases earlier, or growing faster. Or organisms can appear to develop “less” than their ancestors, by growing for a shorter period of time, starting growth phases later, or growing more slowly.
McNamara romps through the animal kindom, from trilobites to ostriches to humans, giving examples of evolution showing that a given species has some attributes that represent extended development, and others that represent retarded development compared to their ancestors. Not being socialized as a biologist, the debate has no charge for this reader. It makes perfect sense that the development program has parameters that can be tuned both up and down!
McNamara’s academic specialty is fossil sea urchins, while his day job is a museum of paleontology in Australia. I suspect that the pedagogical impulse of the museum job shows in the book. He’s not a populist on the Stephen Jay Gould scale, but the book its decently written (though it could be better edited), and provides enough context so a non-specialist reader can read it quite enjoyably.
I liked it a lot, and plan to follow up with more on related topics, perhaps:

If you’re familiar with the topic and have tips for a curious reader, let me know.

Let the dinosaurs die

An open letter to FCC chairman Michael Powell explains why the government shouldn’t prop up the ailing telecom behemoths.
Telecom companies bought expensive network technology with long bonds. That technology has been made obsolete by gear getting faster and cheaper all the time by Moore’s law and Metcalfe’s law. The telecom companies are asking for the equivalent of a bailout for their investments in sailing ships after the advent of steam.
The way to speed the deployment of broadband to homes isn’t to prop up businesses based on old technology, but to let uncompetitive businesses “fail fast”, and let new competitors play.
Read it; and if you agree, contact your legislator and pass it on.

Movable Type, Mitch Kapor and the semantic web

I’ve been a little slow on reading for the last couple of weeks, working on code instead. Learned CSS last weekend, and installed Movable Type this weekend. The MT software lets you categorize entries, so people who want to catch up on my life don’t have to slog through essays on complex systems, and vice versa. The code is available, which raises all kinds of intriguing possibilities for nifty hacks, involving email and the Amazon API and comments.
The technology industry is in a depression, and the big boys and girls wonder if the days of innovation are behind us. But there’s plenty of creativity going on in the open source world.
A couple of years ago, open source hackers were working on OS kernel implementations, web servers, and development tools. Reliable, heavy-duty carpenter’s tools; software of, by, and for professional technologists, intent on improving the machine, and more power to them.
These days, there are also communities working on tools for publishing, collaboration, communication. Creative applications using the Amazon API, the Google API, RSS syndication. And I just read on SlashDot that Mitch Kapor and Andy Hertzfeld are working on an open source competitor to Outlook, using bits and pieces of Mozilla, Jabber, and Python. The current wave of open source software development is in tools and applications for people.
Some thoughts about this trend, in several different directions:
1) During the boom, Jerry Michalski, an industry visionary and highly decent human being, used to talk about how the internet would provide tools for people to communicate and collaborate. And he’d talk about the potential for Yahoo and Amazon and AOL to be new platforms. But the economy went south, companies slowed innovation, and focused understandably on paying the bills. The good thing is, there’s no reason to wait for a Yahoo or Amazon or Microsoft to provide the tools. People are coding happily away in kitchens and living rooms.
2) Despite the fact that Mitch Kapor’s project seems to attack Microsoft in an area of towering strength, his business isn’t as crazy as it sounds. IBM is building a big business implementing open source software; there are similar services opportunities downmarket of IBM. IBM would be quite happy to deploy armies of professional service people to deploy an open source messaging system.
The Kapor announcement is vaporware; it may or may not go anywhere. The niche might be filled by some other project, some other year. But open source poses a threat to Microsoft’s dominance of the email market, just as it does in operating systems.
3) Tim Berners-Lee and various other very smart people have described a vision of the “semantic web.” According to Berners-Lee’s view, the Semantic Web would be for machines what the World Wide Web is for people, a uniform way to see and use vast amounts of formerly hidden information. The classic example is a robot secretary that will scour the web and schedule your airfares, hotel rooms, and meetings, using metadata published according to standards, and discovered via automated search and publish/subscribe notification.
Open source hackers and software companies are building a semantic web today, and it’s different from Berners-Lee’s vision. In the robot version of the semantic web, the nodes of the network consist of information, nicely categorized according to standard XML taxonomies. The links consist of protocols and tools to traverse the network, and automated processes to make calculations and execute transactions; to find the shortest travel time at the lowest cost.
In the version of the semantic web exemplified by AllConsuming.net, Daypop and Google News, the nodes of the network are people. The links of the network are relationships among people; who are reading books, selecting stories to publish, selecting sites to link. Google News, which is marketed as a replacement for human editors, depends thoroughly on humans; editors and bloggers, who select the stories to cover to begin with, and readers around the world, who chose which stories to read. The semantic web doesn’t replace human intelligence, it multiplies it by connecting people.
Despite the Nasdaq, tech innovation surely isn’t done.

Who’s paying the bills?

There’s an ongoing weblog conversation about whether bloggers need to disclose who’s paying the bills when they express an opinion on a subject, just like other journalists, pundits, consultants, and miscellaneous public figures.
The debate was sparked by Mobius, a PR event to tout Microsoft’s latest PDA technology. Recognizing that bloggers influence opinion, Microsoft invited bloggers to the event.
As I wrote in correspondence to Mitch Ratcliffe, who’s been ranting on the topic lately, “Of course bloggers are subject to influence by whoever’s paying the bills!! Anyone who thinks for a moment should realize it– marketers have been co-opting grass roots movements for decades. What product was John Lennon’s Imagine used to shill again? Remember the Pepsi Generation? Who is sponsoring the latest Extreme sports competition?
For a historical perspective on the co-option of grassroots movements by marketers, take a look at Commodify Your Dissent!
Disclosure: I’ve seen and heard multiple reviews, articles and interviews by and about the Baffler crowd, but I haven’t read the whole book.

How People (Really) Make Decisions

A conversation yesterday with Pete Kaminski brought to mind one of the more interesting books I’ve read in the last few years.
The book is called Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, by Gary Klein, a social science researcher and consultant. The book is badly named. It’s not a neo-Machiavellian business manual; it’s fascinating social science research on how people (really) make decisions, in contrast to how we think people make decisions, influenced by our mental models of people as computers.
Spoiler: people make and share decisions with stories
Klein started out looking to find experimental evidence for the way people make decisions, based on long-established academic work on decision theory. The conventional theory predicts that people compare alternatives, and make a rational choice among alternatives. The conventional wisdom is bolstered by a mental model of the brain as a computer, which methodically compares choices in a decision algorithm.
Klein’s group did fieldwork among experienced professionals who make frequent life-and-death decisions as part of their job — intensive care nurses, fire-fighters, military tank commanders. What they found, to their suprise, is that people’s decision-making process is nothing like the textbook model.
Klein made two interesting discoveries — about how experts make decisions, and how they communicate with co-workers.
Expert decision-makers don’t analyze and evaluate alternative options. Instead, they visualize a picture of the situation in their minds eye, envision a single course of action, and run a mental movie carrying out the action. If the scenario plays out, they quickly act. They never consider a second alternative. If there is a problem with the mental scenario, they visualize a second course of action, and implement it instantly if the mental movie plays through.
The experts mental images are very rich; an experienced fire-fighter will imagine the structural stresses on various parts of the building based on the appearance and sound of the fire. An experienced intensive care nurse will visualize a diagnosis based on few clues about a baby’s skin color, breathing, and vital signs. When the experts visualize the image, they don’t think about the components, one-by-one; they quickly identify “points of leverage” — what aspects of the system are most subject to change.
Post-mortem analysis shows that the “first-choice” decisions by experienced experts are most often right; the second-best choices identified in case study analysis are less good than the expert’s first choice.
Klein’s group found that the rational, comparative method of decision-making was followed, not by experts, but by novices first learning the field. Despite the fact that novices were following a more analytical method, the highly considered choices of novices were more likely to be wrong than the expert’s first choice.
When experts troubleshoot a problem, they also diverge from the textbook model. Instead of analyzing the components of the problem, they tell a story to explain the various facts. When expert mentors teach novices, in the field and by the water cooler, they communicate their lessons by means of stories.
I particularly liked the way Klein summarized the difference between computerized decision making methods (define a closed-problem space, break the space into sub-spaces, search the sub-spaces) and human decision-making (pattern-match based on experience, simulate scenarios using imagination, use an iterative process to reach goal, change the goal if necessary; and communicate learning using stories.
However, there is a significant limitation to Klein’s observations.
The decision-making methods that Klein describes enable experts to make quick, effective decisions under pressure. But those skills support preset strategies. The commander of a fire-fighting unit can save the lives of his team and extinguish the fire; but he can’t say whether the Forest Service should have a fire-suppression policy in the first place. Sometimes the intuition of experts can lead them astray, when the situation calls for a truly novel response.
By the way, I was referred to the book by my friend David Blank-Edelman, the author of Perl for System Administration, who used the book’s concepts in a conference presentation on the similarity between network administration and veterinary medicine.

Austin Blog Meetup

Went to the Austin Blog MeetUp tonight. It was good to meet fellow bloggers; Kathryn, Adam Rice, Prentiss Riddle, David Nunez.
There were several interesting conversational threads….
* On blogging and personal disclosure. We talked about Mark Pilgrim’s
moving blog-published story of addiction and recovery, which got him
fired from one job and hired at the next, and about Kathryn’s experience
with friends who reacted very badly to blog entries causing a conflict
that hasn’t yet been resolved.
As for my thoughts on the topic: I am not much of an exhibitionist. Part
of this is wimpiness; I don’t want to write things that I wouldn’t want
potential employers to read. Part of it is concern for you, the reader;
my private fears, worries and doubts are compelling to me, but I don’t
imagine they would be interesting to anyone I don’t know in real life.
Part of it is a desire for security: it feels safer to share personal
stories, in person, with people I know well and trust.
* On maintaining social norms in online community. There seems to be a
continuum starting with small discussion groups where people use their
own names, in which people maintain face-to-face social norms; to larger
mailing lists, where people sometimes flame, but social norms can keep
misbehavior in check; to large forums that use automated tools to help
implement social norms (SlashDot moderation); to large, anonomyous
forums which devolve into incoherent hostility (Usenet, Yahoo messages).
* On blogging and community. We talked about using comments and log
reports to get a sense of feedback from blogging, and brainstormed a
couple ideas to increase blog-related community. It would be wildly cool
to be able to aggregate blog comments into a distributed threaded
discussion. I was thinking about how to implement this last weekend; and
found that that the MoveableType crew is working on it. It should be
some combination of talkback and RSS syndication/aggregation. That way,
people who happened to be reading the same book at the same time could
share a conversation. Prentiss suggested a sort of LivePerson IM for
blogs; where a reader could click a “talk to the blogger” button and
chat. That would need to be implemented with IM-style controls:
invitations to indicate to readers when the blogger was available, and
“keep out” features to repel antisocial visitors, so that a “hey baby
wanna” visitor would go away instantly and permanently.
* On Moveable Type and CSS. Adam kindly explained some subtleties of
about using CSS elegantly to support the structure of your information.
I spent last weekend learning basic CSS, and plan to spend some time
this weekend playing with MoveableType, the better to categorize the
blog for people who are interested in some topics much more than others.
* On MeetUp. The revenue model for MeetUp is to make referral fees from
the venues where people meet; so MeetUp suggests a ballot of places to
meet, and visitors vote. This time round, MeetUp suggested a Starbucks,
a bowling alley, and a video arcade. Not as bad a ballot as “Saddam
Hussein”, or “slow, painful death from torture”, but still not great.
Two venues wholly unsuitable for the group, and a chain coffeeshop in a
city with plenty of fine independents. Hopefully, MeetUp will accept
suggestions for independent businesses.
Despite the flaws in the venue selection, it was a good and useful
service; helped people find each other based on a common interest, and
automated some of the labor-intensive aspects of organizing a meeting,
like sending out reminders, with location, address and phone number.
What with the dot.com bust, people downplay the internet; but there are
plenty of ways still that the internet provides helpful new tools for
people to connect and the interenet.
And a couple of reflections on the meeting.
* You know you’ve been in Austin too long when the weather is perfectly
pleasant (mid-60s), yet you go out underdressed.
* MeetUps need colored table tents to attract people who don’t know each
other. Prentiss and Kathryn, and Adam and I met separately, and we
didn’t meet each other until David Nunez showed up, whom I recognized
from EFF Austin.
* I know better than to have caffeine at 9pm. It was cold outside, and they
were out of decaf, so I ordered a chai latte for the warmth, and it’s 2am now.

Fake people

Microsoft is getting a lot of well-deserved mockery for its astroturf ad campaign about a person who switched from Mac to Windows. Unfortunately, the woman in the phony testimonial looked suspiciously like a certain PhotoDisk model.
For some reason, web hosting services seem to be especially drawn to the use of fake people in their marketing, this when people don’t use the najlepszy hosting agencies. I was looking for a new host for alevin.com, and noticed that many hosting services seem to advertise their discount plans with pictures of cheesy, fake-looking people . Meanwhile, there is no information to be found about any real managers or tech-support humans at the company.
Why does anyone think people are fooled by this? Whenever I see pictures of fake people, I imagine surly, disheveled employees in a basement somewhere, surrounded by cigarette butts in cups of day-old coffee scum.
By the way, I signed up with Cornerhost , which has the advantage of being run by a real person.

Lessig explains the Eldred arguments

Prof. Lessig explains in his weblog about the legal issues that the Supreme Court will consider in deliberating on the Eldred vs. Ashcroft case (about whether Congress has the legal ability to extend copyright protection ad infinitum). Lessig’s explanation is far more helpful than most of the journalists and citizenbloggers who covered the arguments like a sporting event.
I hope that the decision in the spring comes out in favor of Eldred and the public domain. Either way (as I wrote on the comments page of Prof. Lessig’s blog), this is just one battle in a long war, with battlefields in the courts and congress and the press and the public.
If the Justices understand the problem, and Lessig felt they did, that’s one step forward. If technologists understand the problem, that’s a step forward. If a few politicians start to understand the problem, that’s another step forward. If the mainstream press starts to understand the problem, another step forward.
Pardon the rhetoric, but this is one of the major issues of our time. The rise of the internet has the potential to return to ordinary people the power to contribute to culture; a power that has been greatly diminished in modern times by the dominance of mass media. The entertainment industry would like to preserve its oligopoly on cultural expression, and is trying to use technology and the legal system to stifle our rights to culture.
This is a subject worth understanding and a fight worth fighting (assuming we don’t start World War 3, rendering the legal and cultural struggles of our society an academic subject for future archeologists.)

Why girls don’t like computer games

Here’s an interesting explanation for why most girls don’t like computer games, backed up by experience and research. And it’s not just that “boys like shooting; girls like shopping.”
Girls tend to find repetitive shoot-em-ups boring. Girls like solving puzzles more than competing, and enjoy reaching goals rather than scoring points.
This explanation sounds plausible and certainly resonates for me.