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February 21, 2008

Curating conversations (a meditation in the sunlight)
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:09 PM * 207 comments

Somewhere in the war between enthusiasm and cynicism, the content of Patrick’s notes on the O’Reilly Tools for Change for Publishing conference went undiscussed. And I’m sorry about that, because some of them really got my attention. They looked neat. I wanted to hear more.

Then, less than a week later, I was sitting in a restaurant in the Alps, nursing a bruised tendon in one knee while one of the smartest people I know dozed beside me. And suddenly two of those one-line comments tied together a mass of notions I’d collected from a dozen disparate sources. It was pure high country cascade, and I’d like to pick apart some of the ideas from it here on Making Light.

‘Content is king! Content is king!’ No. Nor is ‘context.’ Contact is king.

Since when is the Internet a monarchy?

Content is important, since the internet is basically an information delivery system. But we’re social animals, so we bring community into everything we do. Look at the stories of the desert fathers; these men were hermits, and still their lessons are about community. We’re the same today, even when we’re alone at our keyboards.

Really good communities tend to grow around valuable or interesting content. Google and StumbleUpon pull new readers in. If the content keeps moving and stays good, a certain proportion stay around and chat, get to know each other, hang out. The growing community at BoingBoing is a recent example.

Contrariwise, really good content is about community. Writers are motivated by readers; creation implies audience. And a good community can generate even better content than an individual, if conversation and dissent are used to refine the ideas under discussion.

The two are one, like hands joined together, like the end and the way.

Curating the conversation will be a whole new kind of editorial job.

Communities that generate content generally do it in conversation (not always; my old community didn’t). That conversation needs to be gardened and nurtured while it’s in progress — and that’s a whole ‘nother ball of fishy kettles — but it also needs care afterwards.

Online conversations can strain even Sturgeon’s Law. Some of them are astonishingly crap. And even — or especially — the good ones wander all over the place, cross-fertilize, merge and separate. Finding anything again is a matter of luck and memory. Finding it the first time is more about miracles and Google-fu.

That’s not going to be good enough in the future. More and more new ideas are first proposed online. Without a record of how they were developed, without the initial arguments against and reactions to them, they lose a significant part of their meaning. (For instance, only without context can Wikipedia seriously describe disemvoweling as “a technique by forum moderators to censor unwanted posting”.) Valuable historical information is being lost.

One could manually index conversations, of course, but that’s enormously time-consuming. Kelly McCullough’s excellent work indexing Making Light and Electrolite is the product of great effort as well as love. To index every conversation like that is way over the event horizon of practicality.

So what should be done?

If I may go all Charlie Stross for a moment (by which I mean buzzword-rich and science fictional), we need some way of automatically tagging and flagging conversations.

Tagging can indicate the content of a discussion. Word-frequency analysis might be useful here, perhaps in a moving average over multiple comments to pick up threaded discussions. There is a tension between using a controlled vocabulary and a free one; one is more searchable, the other more adaptable. Perhaps some form of evolving or semi-controlled vocabulary? Bayesian algorithms already figure out which emails are spam and which are ham; could they figure out which tags are applicable and which have been superseded?

But conversations should also be flagged for quality. A good conversation is idea-rich; a poor one reiterates old notions and beats them to death. Text mining and search systems should prioritise the former over the latter. And that’s yet another question: what are the markers of a good online conversation? I bet that’s harder to detect automatically than trolling, even, but what a treasure for searchability if we could!

At this point, my companion woke from his sleep and listened to my excited handwaving exposition. He was unconvinced.

What say you?

Nota bene: constructive criticism of goals, means and methods is keenly sought. Rants might be better left at the door, unless they are funny or in verse.

Comments on Curating conversations (a meditation in the sunlight):
#1 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2008, 07:24 PM:

It could be argued that the very lack of history returns us in some ways to myth.

#2 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2008, 07:29 PM:

Or, if not to myth, to genaealogy.

#3 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2008, 07:31 PM:

...what are the markers of a good online conversation?

Being me, I'd look for indicators of bad conversations, ignore tham, and whatever is left over ought be of superior quality. Looking for new ideas and content sounds hard, because we don't know what it will be. Instead, filter out all the things we've heard already too many times.

If I may go all Charlie Stross for a moment...

Not going for the shaved head and bag of gadgets?

#4 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2008, 07:32 PM:

Back when I was job-hunting while hammering the last few nails in my linguistics PhD, I interviewed with a company that was developing cognitive-based tools for determining what they called "the aboutness" of electronic documents. Not simply a word-frequency based guess at topic, but an interpretation of attitude, genre, etc. I never did get a chance to find out more about the approach since I wasn't called back for a second interview. (I've always wondered if that was because I commented on how useful their project appeared to be for illegal wholesale governmental spying on electronic communications. But hey, maybe I'm just paranoid.)

#5 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2008, 07:44 PM:

What makes a good conversation anywhere is the willingness of people both to speak and to listen, and to do more of the latter than the former.

#6 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2008, 07:45 PM:

Also, since abi wants verse:

your chances come and go like a spring breeze
above the tulips maples still are bare
but all the city seems to be aware
that something's brewing in the mysteries
nature may hide some trick in her chemise
that the best gardener would not think she'd dare
and then send signals out in simplest clear
when we most think to sit and take our ease
on edge of spring we wait as on each night
the stars reveal another sort of chance
and we are given leave to ask for rest
not knowing yet what we may get as right
nor what our steps are in the coming dance
but hoping that each change is for the best

#7 ::: Lance Weber ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2008, 07:58 PM:

I have a blog post from awhile back where I called out what I saw as the 4C's of the new social media: Content, Community (or Conversation), Consumer and Commerce.

Quote: "If Content Is King, then Community is Queen. A fickle, hard to please queen at best. Easy to plan and support with technology, extraordinarily difficult to nurture and grow."

#8 ::: Edd ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2008, 08:28 PM:

Are there two points here? 1:Contact is king (or at least coequal with content) and 2:There's a need for ham-recognition software.

Perhaps there's room for a sideways corollary: there's a need for contact-recognition software. If 'ham' is content, then 'feast' could be called the enjoyment of ham.

There's only so many hours in a day, so it's advisable to spend a certain amount of it keeping up with existing community - 'feasting' - and a certain amount fishing for new content and/or community - 'feast-seeking'.

A feast-seeking agent would be one that incorporates ham-recognition while bearing in mind the seeker's tastes and willingness to experiment ("My seeker likes to talk about A, so I'll suggest A' to them but not B.")

#9 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2008, 09:23 PM:

I was sitting in a restaurant in the Alps, nursing a bruised tendon in one knee

...and nursing a beer in the other knee?
"Have another knight cap, dear."

Isn't the community itself a content?

No, I'm not sure what that means. It just popped in my heard.

#10 ::: Donald Delny ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2008, 09:29 PM:

Abi, maybe, instead of relying on algorithmic processing of text ab intio, we could start with some framework?

Back to community markers: most things that TNH, or Charlie Stross, or Scalzi, or Gaiman write are worth reading - have quality - say 90% quality. They are very valuable due to their quantity, too: instead of searching everything, everywhere, for relevance (the bind google algorithm way), one merely need wait for them to tackle the topic. Given an inadequate, but still large amount of text, and an inadequate assemblage of great writers, the chances of finding a relevant "answer" are pretty good.

Our ancient tribal skills of recognizing really good storytellers (and truthful ones) is a good enough algorithm, I think.

Ahem. Well, I meant to be more insightful. This isn't working out well. Let me try with numbers:

Scenario: you want to understand something. You have access to:
20 people* who cover 80% of everything with 70% more text than most people can muster.
70 people** who cover another 10% of the world's knowledge, but do it with about 20% more text than the average person
250-500 people*** who cover the remaining 8% of the worlds knowledge, and do it with about the same amount of text as an average person.

That's not that many blogs to search through, or books to read, but a primitive sorting algorithm might be to start skimming group one right away.

Note the missing last 2% of the world's knowledge, which is the property of the dead.

I lost my point. I'll try again tomorrow.

*e.g. TNH
**e.g. Joel Spolsky of Joel on Software
***e.g. Ashcraft on Kotaku's Night Notes

#11 ::: Nomie ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2008, 09:46 PM:

I'm glad I checked the bottom of my browser window to see just where that Google link led. I'm not sure I want to know the results of that search.

#12 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2008, 09:49 PM:

We have almost no writings of the Greek poet Archilochus, who was revered by his contemporaries, but we do famously know one line he wrote:

The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one - one big one.

This seems to me to apply somehow. (And not in Isaiah Berlin's rather formulaic application to kinds of historians, which I doubt has anything to do with what he is getting at.)

Do you want your conversations to tell you what the foxes think, or to get the occasional hedgehogs to uncurl a little and tell you what they think? 'Cause, you know, they've got to feel ready to uncurl before they can tell you.

#13 ::: Michael Turyn ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2008, 10:19 PM:

(Funny, much of my recent work-life has involved algorithmic social networking tweaks....)

Precisely because context is so important, I think flagging is a very tall order, a function of the text, its referents, and the reader and theirs [sic].

Example: I found American-style Libertarian arguments fascinating the first time I heard them. It was new information and a new way of looking at the world, and so I probably thought the writing was better than I would now (this, incidentally, is why pornography succeeds in new and flawed mædia---interest level substitutes for quality of presentation). Now they feel like an algorithm I understood awhile back; my judgement of the "interestingness" and (more significantly and sadly) overall level of quality of any such would now be much lower---pretty much anyone not as good as David Friedman doesn't seem worth my time.

Of course, you could keep a couple of readers on ice at the National Bureau of Standards....

#14 ::: Dave Trowbridge ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2008, 10:23 PM:

There is a new technology being developed that can perform automated tagging, from a company called SearchPhysics. It detects and exploits patterns inherent in any language (and in many natural processes, such as galactic clustering) to extract knowledge about the subject material presented. The neat thing is, it's language-independent, and requires no training.

#15 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 01:07 AM:

Automatic mechanisms for classifying or indexing poorly-understood domains strike me as problematic. What I usually ask of automation in the beginning of any major undertaking is assisting the work of an expert* rather than performing all the work. So what I'd like to see is tools to make it quicker and easier for a person to identify and classify conversations, and to detect changes in the characteristics of a conversation, so it can be reclassified as necessary.

Slashdot, Digg, and Stumbleupon are different ways of finding interesting conversations or creating them around interesting content using social networking with simple rules based on human interaction. More complicated and subtle (and varying) rules could be used with some automatic tools to help. What's interesting to me is that the evolution of these kinds of sites over the last few years has been through a continuous accretion of layers of meta-organization and aggregation, with technology mostly used to connect the layers or aggregate the components rather than to detect or help create them. I'm not sure if this indicates that we don't know what tools would be useful, that such tools are very hard to create, or if it's just quicker to figure out how to get people to perform such tasks, now that getting them to communicate is easy.

* or someone who's trying to become an expert

#16 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 01:16 AM:

Distribution rules--without, there's no information communicated.

The best whatever in the world is utterly useless if it's in the wrong place or has the wrong people for operating it or gets operated improperly for a purpose it's the wrong tool for.

Distribution, when it comes to content availability, trumps quality--consider Fux Noose et al making Gresham's Law look optimist ic. If someone's never been exposed to quality goods, or never taught what and why about "quality," or how to think critically, or is obdurate about dismissing the scientific method in favor of uncritical credo... that person is probably going to not be able to distinguish crap from quality and won't care about distinguishing crap from quality.

Regarding community and quality, one size almost never fits much less flatters all. (Flatters might not be the word I want, the word I want denotes adornment that improves how someone appears and puts them in a positive light, highlights them positively, etc.) There are things as simple as, "I am a short, small woman. Those becoming ubiquitous electronic signing things in stores, tend to be at heights which are difficult for me to read the text displaying on them, and even more obnoxious as intended for being "signed." Someone I do NOT think that the people who designed those setups, included, much less bothered to consider the existence of and usability to, of short people. They are noxious, aggravating, irritating, and rude as regards my opinion of both them, and the people who implemented them at heights inimical to me. Someone a
half-meter taller than I is likely to have a different opinion.

That is an example of a physical difference, that makes a community difference in effect. The store usability regarding those pieces of equipment, applies much better to Tall People than Short People.

Regarding content, there are lots of individual differences of perception, experience, background, physiology, etc., that affect how different people interpret the same words. Some groups have encoded messages and terminology, particularly that applies for things allegorical, with the equivalent of a mental dictionary of substitutions involves, shared across "community" or shared to some degree across communities.

Texts get redacted over time, and different groups conflict as to what the "correct" text is and what the correct interpretation/interpretations are. It gets particularly vicious where there are translations involved and the world of the author(s) recede away in time and culture.

But, the same words assembled together, don't denote the same things to different people. The phrase that one person admires and finds of surpassing brillance to one person, is the purple prose, or boring, or devoid of life, passage to another.

One bottom line on at least one axis, reflects what the work evokes, or fails to evoke, in the individual reader. The reader brings the reader's conventions and experience and taste and worldview and history and values and expectations to the material--and those are things than can and usually do change over time. The words and the order they're in stay the same, the person reading them changes.

Communications theory examines all of the sender, the transmission media and channel, and the receiver--anywhere in those the message can be distorted, misencoded, misinterpreted, mangled, mishandled, dropped, decoded with an incorrect key....

"Quality" is a judgment issue, and the criteria and how they're applied mattered.

Lots of people never look or even want to look at their assumptions about what is good, what is bad, what is "quality," and why they have the values and beliefs and criteria they have--if they are even aware of most of their values, beliets, and criteria.

"Why do you like this?" or "Why do you value this?" isn't necessarily a question that most someones ask themselves, and without knowing accurate answers to those and other questions, the issue of "quality" becomes an uncalibrated conflict of belief and worldview.


"I liked this because it reminds me of the place I grew up," is a valid reason for liking something, but it's not necessarily a criterion for someone being quality literature! "I despise his prose style," explains why someone might put a novel on a Hugo ballot below No Award, but enough other people regarded the book (or perhaps the author...) highly enough nominate the work for a Hugo.

What I'm proposing above, is that context matters. "Give me a lever to push with and I will move the Earth," involves there having to be some fulcrum available for the lever, a person to push on the lever, and of course the Earth for the person to push the Earth with. The fulcrum usually goes unremarked and left out as requirement.

With tangibles involving levers and such, success, failure, and metric are much clearer than quality of a literary endeavor.

But getting back to distribution again--how is someone to attempt to measure quality, without criteria and standards such to measure against, for comparison and contrast... distribution denotes availabiilty (hopefully) of the work, and people that it gets to, being able to do their own metrics, however qualitative/quantitative they be ("This book has a lead character from a place I detest as protagonist, so it's a bad book!" "The author wrote this book in iambic pentameter, I love iambic pentameter, and it is the most wonderful book because what I care about most is a regular rhythm and meter!" "This book has 800 pages. I LOVE big thick books, this book is wonderful!" "This book is an 800 page big fat fantasy novel. BFF novels are evil and despicable and I hate them so this book utterl stinks!!!" )

#17 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 02:08 AM:

I think Paula and Bruce are both getting at some very interesting angles on the idea, both usefully avoiding the "solution in search of a problem" or "technology in search of an application" that I see so much of in software.

Paula rightly identifies one of the core questions as "quality in terms of what values?" and Bruce notes that genuinely useful software tends to focus on figuring out important work that people do and finding ways to assist them in the repetitive grunt-work parts of it, rather than trying to replace the people. (Word processing software has changed the world. Search engines have changed the world. All attempts at developing software to write fiction or non-fiction have gone nowhere.)

#18 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 03:53 AM:

How do you beat Sturgeon's Law? Communities. A community of like-minded folks, a bunch of people with the same (or at least similar) interests as you are always going to be the best predictors of what you’re going to like. This is why good content generates communities, and good communities generate content.* It is the function of one to find the other. I think this principle is widely understood on a subconscious level, but widely misapplied.

Take community ratings systems, like Digg or on Daily Kos. I've always been really disappointed with the way these systems work out. The critique you always hear about them is that they inevitably become a self-reinforcing cycle, where the highest-rated blogs/whatever are most widely read and so they get the highest ratings, and low-rated ones stay unread and get low ratings. That isn’t what bothers me. What bothers me is that they don’t work.

It is commonly accepted that general popularity is a good predictor of quality. From the individual’s perspective, that simply isn’t true. Trying to guess what people will like by applying statistical averages is like trying to guess people’s height with a bell curve: you’ll be right more often then if you guess, but you’ll still be wrong more often than right. It’s simply not a refined enough technique to surmount Sturgeon’s Law**—50% crap is still too much crap. Wide appeal simply isn't wide enough. People want things that appeal to them personally, and for every person, it’s going to be different.

Community ratings systems fail because they focus on the “group” part of communities, rather than the “people” part. It’s people, specific people, that are key. People join communities because the communities are made up of people more like them than the average population. That’s why they trust them. Communities are communities specifically because that can’t be replaced with a random sample. Even within communities, particular people matter. When I want to find some new music, I don’t take a poll of all my friends. I ask my friend who I know has good (=complementary to my own) taste in music. The input of thousands of people is less useful than the input of one person who you trust.

The best tech fixes, especially when it comes to social stuff, are ones that leverage existing strategies, rather than trying to build from scratch. So how can we take this basic, fundamentally personality-based crap-sorting mechanism and turn it into something that can deal with something as huge as the Internet?

Imagine a Digg that’s designed to track individuals’ tastes. Instead of creating a single front-page list, every list is personal: as each user browses around, they tag things they like, and people they like. If a comment or a post strikes them as particularly intelligent, that alias/person (independent of site), along with the comment, is added to a list of People I Think Are Neat. If a Person I Think Is Neat posts to a blog, or some of them show up on a comment thread, the user gets notified. If the user thinks someone is really extra neat, they can go a browse that person’s list of neat things, and see if any of them appeal. It’s a system designed to privilege personal connections over group identities, individuals over sites. Each individual can create a hand-tailored community of their own, reflecting as precisely as possible their own quirks and interests.

*If good content produces good communities, and vice versa, can that teach us anything about why communities fail? Do they fail because their content sucks? (Example: Arguably, the most of the content that Wikipedia produces is Wikipedia rules lawyering. This is clearly worthless content in any other context. Is that why the Wikipedia community is so toxic?)

**Let me propose a corollary to Sturgeon’s Law: Everyone can agree the 90% of everything is crap, but no one will agree which 90% that is.

#19 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 04:13 AM:

From a different perspective -- and I mean these to be honest questions, not rant, even if they have a touch of the Devil's advocate to them -- what's really new here?

People have been having conversations since the birth of language. Nearly all of the contents of those questions are lost to us; nearly all of the things that were developed in those conversations are things that we only know of when they touched archivable media. The parts of the OED discussing pre-15thish-century language are a veritable mass of this; things that obviously had been in use hundreds of years before the first written example. That conversations get lost is not new.

It's not even that more is being generated; if I were talking instead of online, I'd be generating lots and lots of spoken words, which would be heard by one or two or three other people, and then gone. But more per person is being audible for much longer; here, dozens, maybe a hundred people will read this, some half-dozen crawlers will archive it, the site will stay up for ages, and some of those archives will likely persist until God-knows-when.

What is new, then, is that these conversations are occurring in a way that (a) they can be listened to by many people over a period of time, and (b) they can potentially be saved without much effort. In meatspace, I can participate in two or three conversations in an evening. Online, I can easily read two dozen. And, if the conversations are interesting, I can save them in various ways. I have four dozen Livejournal pages open to read when I have more time; a large pile of bookmarked posts; some hundreds of megabytes of things saved to disk; and almost uncountable numbers of Usenet posts that I forwarded to my email account because I liked them.

And I almost never read any of these more than once.

So, then, my question: What is it, other than the fact that -- like Everest -- the possibilty of archiving these conversations is there, that makes it worth saving them?

We have this idea that anything that can be preserved must be preserved. Could it be that this idea is simply an archaism in the modern copyable world; a quaint leftover from the time when the text a person could accumulate would fit in a few bookshelves?

Beyond that, do conversations preserve their worth beyond the interaction of those participating? I have read arguments about -- for example -- the length of functions in programs, and whether or not there are legitimate reasons for ones longer than 20 lines. And I know the answer to that, and the reasons; there is no worth in rereading that. Having the argument once -- and participating in it, even if only to form the reply in my head that I would make if I chose to be bothered -- was valuable. But, as dead archived matter without the opportunity to reply, there's little point in reading ill-formed rants and immediate reactions in the comments. So why archive it?

Perhaps the right solution is the way things have always been; that conversations should only be archived in the effects they have on those participating, and in whatever rare gems those participants are willing to transcribe longhand.

#20 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 04:20 AM:

heresiarch @ 18: That system is, to a small extent (and with a bit of an inversion), why I find that Livejournal works so well for meeting people. I read journals of people I find nifty. And I read the comments on those journals, which are generally by people specifically who also find that person nifty. Reading the comments gives me an idea of what they're like, and sometimes I add them to my reading list too, and the process propagates -- and I have what I thought was a small reading list that has probably a hundred people on it, most of whom I suspect with opportunity and time I'd be pretty good friends with.

I've also found Usenet groups by DejaNews-searching on the names of people I liked, back in the day.... (And, yes, that was back in the day when it was DejaNews!)

#21 ::: Joe McMahon ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 04:20 AM:

I wonder if there's a historian out there wondering what the early days of the internet were like. I managed to archive almost everything that was ever posted to EMUSIC-L, an electronic music mailing list that ran from 1989ish to 2000; it was a fascinating place at the time, mostly because there really wasn't anywhere else to go if you didn't have Usenet - anything from respected academics to casual hobbyists, all chatting animatedly.

. I wish I'd known what I know now about cultivating a community from reading Making Light; we'd probably still be running, in some form or another. And I would have had the distinct pleasure of disemvoweling one particular creep, who I think managed almost single-handedly to destroy the community, between his disruptive behavior, and what I now think must have been sockpuppetting or behind-the-scenes rabble-rousing.

My guess is that his/her posts would now be about three characters long each, after removal of line-noise and excessive whitespace. And every vowel in sight.

I'd never previously thought about it quite so much as a historical document,; I guess it really was worth it.

#22 ::: Aquila ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 04:38 AM:

Nomie, @11:

Actually, that google search mostly leads here. There's nothing particularly NSFW (except the word itself) in the first page of search results, though there was one page that left a nasty taste in my mouth.

*tries the Google Image search* Maybe I have safe search on, but it's hard to tell when my search engine is speaking Dutch. Yep, it was on. There's one midly dodgy picture, but essentially it's safer to image search for dinosaur sodomy than it is for twister.

#23 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 07:04 AM:

Brooks Moses @ 20: Yeah, I think that lj definitely works along similar lines. The big difference, I think, is that lj is a people-driven process for finding people, where what I have in mind is a people-driven process for finding neat ideas and conversations.

#24 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 08:38 AM:

After "content is king" there was a period when the buzzword was "content is dead". I was tempted to put up some pages filled with "alk;jscfnkweio asiodfnklcx welhhflkqoiqjklc" to celebrate the death of content.

#25 ::: R. M. Koske ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 09:19 AM:

#18, heresiarch made me think about del.icio.us and why it is popular.

I don't pay much attention to Digg or Daily Kos. Honestly, I don't pay much attention to del.icio.us. But I think that one of the things that made del.icio.us so popular is that you can find someone with similar tastes in a very specific item, and follow their links tagged with that topic.

So if I had multiple food allergies and were looking for recipes for baked goods, I could find the Gluten-free Goddess' del.icio.us account*, find her tag "baking" and sub to an RSS of that very specific thing. I'm not trusting a community to bring me things of interest, I'm following a person.

The problem is finding the people whose taste in food/music/conversation matches what you're looking for. Or is that just restating everything that's been said before? Maybe all I'm contributing is the realization that if Digg and Daily Kos don't suit, del.icio.us is an alternative. There are others as well - furl is one, but I think del.icio.us' popularity makes it likely to be the most useful.

The ability to follow individual tags/conversation threads with RSS seems to me to be an incredibly valuable contributor to finding the stuff that's interesting to an individual, but I am definitely still in mad love with RSS as a concept** and could be wearing rose-colored glasses on that point.


I love the corollary to Sturgeon's Law. Well done.


*I don't know that she's got one, I'm making this up as an example.
**It's a bit embarrassing, that adoration. I've been playing with RSS and readers for two years now, so I'm hardly a newbie., but I keep thinking it is utterly awesome, especially when I find places I can sub to specific tags so my signal-to-noise is very high.

#26 ::: Lance Weber ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 09:39 AM:

Clay Shirky's article Against Well-designed Reputation Systems is essential reading. He makes a pretty compelling case that successfully implementing reputation/labeling/flagging systems can only occur after the community's culture has begun to develop.

His premise:
"...the need for some user-harnessed reputation or ranking system can be regarded as a foregone conclusion, and that these systems should be carefully planned so that tragedy of the commons problems can be avoided from launch. I believe that this conclusion is wrong, and that where it is acted on, its effects are likely to be at least harmful, if not fatal, to the service adopting them."

His conclusion:
"I do however mean to say that the central design challenge of user governance — self-correcting systems that do not raise crushing participation burdens on the users or crushing policing barriers on the hosts — are so hard to design in advance that, provided you have the system primitives right, the Boyd Strategy of OODA — Orient, Observe, Decide, Act — will be superior to any amount of advance design work."

The subtle point here is that we are a long way off from being able to develop standardized meta systems for social media content. The best we can do is implement community specific systems.

Feel free to conduct this thought experiment: A book publisher wants to create a mega community site around the community of SF authors, readers and publications. How is it possible to determine in advance what kind of reputation, flagging and tagging systems you can successfully shove at a bunch of contrary, pig headed, fiercely independent, privacy loving, anti-group thinking (ok ok you get the point) bunch of fans and authors? Yeah, good luck with that!

#27 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 09:50 AM:

I wonder if it matters who the curator is? Is it the owner, organizing discussions "somehow" with [insert Nifty Software here]? Or is it the reader, collecting information of personal interest? The algorithms and constraints that a site owner might choose might not be useful for others (Heresiarch's Corollary!).

I can also imagine the owner of a site thinking, hey, I really enjoy all the discussions, but I have neither the time nor the inclination to organize this for posterity. On the other hand, a reader might very well want at least some of the information. Something like this actually came up very recently in a comment in the Bérubé thread (also, comments 36 and 39), although the emphasis was on the posts rather than the discussions about them.

#28 ::: Malthus ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 10:05 AM:

So, while we are debating the utility of tagging, community ranking, and other ways to organize a conversation, I had a thought:

Any given post on Making Light generally spawns at least two almost entirely separate conversations to keep track of. I, personally, occasionally find this difficult. It would be nice to have some way to keep track of them. Either through some sort of "thread" system, or through tagging, or something.

One minimal change might be that whenever someone responds to a post by putting "Lance@26" into their response, the ML system could automatically turn that into a link: Lance@26.
This should be pretty easy to implement, and then we'd just have to get into the habit of doing this more regularly.

What do you think?

#29 ::: Lance Weber ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 10:25 AM:

Malthus@28*: I think ML would be an ideal incubator for community/content tool development. The community and culture are well-developed and sustainable, the signal:noise ratio in the content is very good, and the members generally seem to be receptive to the idea of introducing tooling that adds value.

* Sorry, no link, I'm too lazy! :)

#30 ::: Malthus ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 10:44 AM:

Another idea is limited tagging. We'd have a very limited set of tags that we could apply thru check-boxen while posting. Like "poem" or "pun". Then some sort of option to view only those posts that have a given tag (or, e.g. for puns, not those posts).

#31 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 10:45 AM:

Debbie (#27): Or is it the reader, collecting information of personal interest?

We start as (very roughly speaking) a like-minded community, but certainly not intellectual or emotional clones of one another. And moods will differ from day to day -- sometimes I can read the political threads (or the puns or the utter miscellany), and sometimes I want something else. That's when the "click on by" option that I mentioned elsewhere comes in handy.

What's important to me is a variety of ongoing discussions, by people I like and respect, so I can pick and choose. And that's what "Making Light" offers. Matchmaker programs designed to hook up happy flurosphere couples, triads etc. don't seem necessary. (And I really don't mind that nobody else here gives a damn about pro tennis or cryptic crossword puzzles! There's more to life than two minor obsessions.)

#32 ::: Malthus ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 10:55 AM:

The reason I prefer limited tagging to unlimited tagging is because given, say, a post on growing roses, one person might tag it "roses", while another will tag it "flowers", and another "green-thumb", or "horticulture", or "i-for-one-welcome-our-new-perennial-overlords". Or any subset of the above and another two dozen descriptors I've left out. Makes tagging useless for looking up all posts about roses.

#33 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 10:59 AM:

I don't think we can do this kind of idea justice without getting into the life cycles of conversations and communities. The needs of someone getting into a new community or area of interest will be way different from those of established members or longtime aficionados. Telling newbies to come back when they've read the FAQ (or whatever has been tagged as the most cogent exegesis of some particular subject) isn't going to give them the buzz of actually participating in a conversation.

So part of what you need to tag (if tagging is the right way) is which conversations and communities are new and growing, which are stable, which are mostly occupied by an old guard. And then you need to propagate this information in such a way that it can affect even people who don't know they need it.

I've participated in several long-lived online communities (15-20 years, long enough for people's children to be online), and have found that very few discussions are really new. Sometimes there are new points of information that didn't exist before, sometimes new casts of characters will produce a different direction, but the important
thing for the participants is having the discussion, not necessarily being able to point out the last five times or places it was perfectly hashed out. Until we can work out the "new" versus "new to me" issue, the tags will be difficult.

#34 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 11:23 AM:

Somewhat off-topic.
Let me propose a corollary to Sturgeon’s Law: Everyone can agree the 90% of everything is crap, but no one will agree which 90% that is. (heresiarch #18)

This is very close to the argument I tried to make at a meeting in the Powerhouse Museum lo these many years ago including one of the influential people of the time back when the DVD region system was being set up. He was saying he & other taste-arbiters would go out into the market and pick the content *they* wanted to release in the Australia/Pacific/South American region, the European region, etc.

I was trying to say that that would wipe out the best feature of releasing so much content, old and new, on the new format, and online searching and selling; that people interested in things slightly (or well) off the "average" should now be able to have access to their interests in a far easier way, and that the total of all these different "niches" would add up to quite a substantial market, almost totally untapped at the time.

Obviously this argument didn't work on the PTB. This has not changed my belief in it.

#35 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 11:38 AM:

Neil @3:
...I'd look for indicators of bad conversations, ignore them, and whatever is left over ought to be of superior quality.

Is a good conversation really just one that fails to be bad?

I've been thinking of conversational metrics in two classes; call them content and form. Many of our troll bingo filters ("you people" and the like) are content filters, conversational markers of an individual commenter who may be crossing the line, and may therefore need some moderator attention.

But our conversations tend to be resilient enough to handle a single troll. Indeed, a good piñata can liven up a discussion and spark new ideas. The markers of a conversation gone bad are probably different, more about form than content. (Though multiple trolls might count.)

An example. A few months ago, I noticed a pattern of postings that marked one way some of our threads were going wrong. (It had to do with the ratio of postings by one person to all the other participants of the conversation, with some intensifiers for comment length.) I don't have the tools at my fingertips to do the analysis programmatically, but I did use it as an informal diagnostic tool for a while.

#36 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 11:50 AM:

Malthus @30 & 32:
The reason I prefer limited tagging to unlimited tagging is because given, say, a post on growing roses, one person might tag it "roses", while another will tag it "flowers", and another "green-thumb", or "horticulture", or "i-for-one-welcome-our-new-perennial-overlords". Or any subset of the above and another two dozen descriptors I've left out. Makes tagging useless for looking up all posts about roses.

This is the classic argument in favor of a controlled vocabulary, and it's a good one.

The counter-argument is that the content is analog, not digital. Meanings are gradiated, and vary according to context. And sometimes one person's terms don't make any sense to others*.

Translating things into a rigid framework too early creates data loss as well - once you over-generalize to meet the controlled vocabulary, you can't get the specificity back.

I like the idea of slowly evolving tags, kind of a semi-controlled vocabulary. So if the previous comments in the thread all talk about "roses", then "roses" is suggested, but if they're talking about "blossoms", then it's "blossoms".

A good associative search engine, with thesaurus support (I work for a company that writes and sells one for libraries, for instance) can suggest "flowers" and "blossoms" when you look for "roses".

-----
* For instance, the Library of Congress subject categorization term for books about gravestones is "sepulchral monuments". Springs right to the tongue, doesn't it?

#37 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 12:07 PM:

Oh, man, there are enough issues here for several separate threads. (Making this thread a good case-study for applying curating ideas.)

Mez @34 -- those were some of the ideas rattling in the back of my head when I was thinking about who's the curator, who's the user, what are their interests, and what are their needs. Any useful system is going to have to be very flexible and robust, that's for sure.

It's been interesting observing the development of Ravelry, the knitting/crocheting megasite. From Day 1 the intention of the creators was to make it a community. They have over 55,000 members (and it's still in beta) from over 199 countries. There are pre-teens and people over 80. There are vast differences in the degree of computer-savviness, not to mention the reasons why people want to be there at all (organize their own stuff, search for yarn/patterns/ideas more easily, engage in discussions).

The discussion forums are pretty closely monitored, both by official mods and via self-policing. While there have been some complaints about trolls, I think that this is not a significant problem overall. They have a feature whereby each post to a forum can be marked educational/interesting/ funny/agree/disagree/love. I suppose you could use information like this to give some sort of overall quality rating to a discussion (I have no idea if that's the eventual goal of the site), but it would feel very clunky doing something like that at ML.

Sorry, I have no concrete ideas for solutions to any of this, but I am enjoying listening and thinking.

#38 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 12:08 PM:

#32 Malthus:

This deficiency in a unlimited-tag searching system could be overcome if the search mechanism worked through complex semantic frames (see, just as an example, the Framenet project). In such a context, the use of the word "rose" (or a search on the word "rose") invokes related words/concepts such as "flower", "plant", "garden", "horticulture", "perennial" to greater or lesser degrees, depending on underlying semantic relatedness. (Of course, the use of/search on the word "rose" also invokes words and concepts related to the verb "to rise", but all this means is that a frame-based tag-interpretation system has at least a vague hope of indexing puns in a useful way.)

#39 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 12:16 PM:

Bruce @15:
Automatic mechanisms for classifying or indexing poorly-understood domains strike me as problematic. What I usually ask of automation in the beginning of any major undertaking is assisting the work of an expert rather than performing all the work.

Amen. I'm a tester in my day job, and I'm well familiar with the magical thinking that goes on around automation. If you automate crap, all you get is really fast crap.

I suspect that it will be some time before automation can replace intelligent processing. There are, however, two pieces of middle ground.

1. As you suggest, software to amplify or assist human judgement. In the same way that I think you could use troll bingo markers to prioritize conversations for moderator attention, I suspect you could use a human to evaluate, steer, and teach a tagging algorithm. It might never be completed, as the conversation moves and the tags have to be made to follow. But if teaching the system is easier than labelling manually, we're still ahead of the game.

(This is not to say that this scales linearly. Assuming that a piece of software which saves a human 75% of the rote work doesn't mean they can then do the work of four people; we don't operate at our top 25% efficiency all the time. Sometimes rote work is necessarily restful.)

2. Inadequate functionality as a substitute for no functionality at all. If we wait for an optimal solution, we may wait forever. It was once described to me as "making the best the enemy of the good."

#40 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 12:24 PM:

abi @ 39

on point 2: I've heard it described as
the hardest part of being an engineer is learning to say 'It's good enough: ship it.'

#41 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 12:28 PM:

abi @ 39... If you automate crap, all you get is really fast crap.

I think I'll have a t-shirt made with that saying on it.

#42 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 12:35 PM:

Serge @9:

Isn't the community itself a content?

Sometimes. Here, for instance, it is, partly because people (you, for instance) value it and nurture it.

Sometimes it's not. Wikipedia, for instance, uses "what contributes to the encyclopedia?" to decide what is permitted. (It comes up, for instance, in the matter of user page labels listing interests, political views, and tastes.)

Wikipedia, by the way, strikes me as being on a pretty difficult cleft stick about community vs content. Their mission is content; that's indisputable. They permit some real jerks to stay around because of the quality of their contributions.

But their policies on editor anonymity are damaging to the encyclopedia -- to content. They allow any amount of hidden conflict of interest and consequent bias. The defense of editor anonymity, due to some extreme examples of harassment and stalking, is the defense of a site that values its community. (This is not a bad thing, but it's not their stated aim.)

I don't know the answer to their dilemma. I think they're too big and too widely referenced to be immune from every kind of gaming and abuse going. They're certainly too large to be considered a single community; reputation and accountability don't scale into the numbers they have. The result is that editors and admins form cliques and cabals just to work as a community. Sadly, that damages wider trust.

I have often wondered whether they could move to some kind of federated model, but I don't know what kind.

#43 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 12:38 PM:

P J Evans @ 40... 'It's good enough: ship it.'

Problems arise over the definition of good enough. Or the tester/user with the final say is technically reasonably knowledgeable, but, even though you've fixed the frigging bug, the t/u wants to know the exact circumstances that led to the buggy situation and you spend many emails telling the t/u that this wouldn't be time wisely spent and the exchange goes on and on until the t/u goes oops and realizes that he/she caused the buggy situation.

#44 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 12:40 PM:

Malthus @28: One minimal change might be that whenever someone responds to a post by putting "Lance@26" into their response, the ML system could automatically turn that into a link: Lance@26.

Yes. What I've wanted for quite a while has been the other thing that could do -- which is add notes at the bottom of Lance's number-26 post that says "Replies in @28, @44" (also with links, of course).

#45 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 01:02 PM:

abi @ 42... I suppose that Wikipedia, because of its size, isn't a community anymore but an organization. Maybe it hasn't admitted that to itself, or that it needs to change to actually function as an organization.

#46 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 01:29 PM:

The conversation's fractal. How to find
Community may be one garden path
After another. Gardens of the mind
Require both gardeners and busy bees;
We also serve, who only pollinate
A Fibonacci series of remarks,
Roses of verse, twined on the garden gate,
An argument like fuchsia, shooting sparks,
Elaborations full as double blooms.
The vine of listening's indeterminate;
It is the green that limns these outdoor rooms.
And, should we get a blight of bile or hate,
A poison flower tipped with spiky horns
The gardener comes in nd clps th thrns

#47 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 01:31 PM:

..and, of course, I forgot the comma on the penultimate line. *eyeroll*

#48 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 01:55 PM:

elise, you are an ornament to our garden, a rose of splendid beauty and fragrance.

#49 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 01:59 PM:

elise -- brava!!

(we need poetry tags badly; not to mention recipes, first aid techniques, book recommendations....) :-)

#50 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 02:20 PM:

elise shall from now on be known as the Rose. (I see myself as a punderosa tree, providing shelter against harsh winds... or fuel for the next marshmallow roast.)

#51 ::: Scott H ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 02:25 PM:

Brooks Moses @ #19: What is it, other than the fact that -- like Everest -- the possibilty of archiving these conversations is there, that makes also solved the halting problem.it worth saving them?

Well, I see your point in that nothing particularly exciting springs to mind. But if the archived conversations are available to be sifted, some hypothetical future genius might come up with some clever use that isn't obvious to either of us.

But regardless of whether anything good comes of archiving conversations, there ARE going to be downsides. The presidential candidates of 2048 are going to spend a lot of time explaining the youthfully exuberant remarks they posted to LJ and the drunken debauchery photos on MySpace.


#52 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 02:51 PM:

A further musing on Brooks' point:

Even if conversations are spectacularly good, is it necessarily good to save them?

I know there have been some times when I have been weary and down, and I've been "sucked in" and spent hours browsing archived conversations on ML (ones I was part of, and ones I wasn't.) I could have been trying to participate in a new conversation, but I didn't have the energy, and it was easier to just read old ones, where I needn't take part because I couldn't.

A conversation is always a performance. I think one reason ML works is that so many people here recognize that and put a little effort into their performance. (Or sometimes a lot, as witness Elise's sonnet above.) Yet it's always easier to be a spectator than a performer, and the more that brilliant performances* are archived, the stronger the temptation to remain a spectator.

I'm not arguing against archives and curation, just musing.

[*] Bless you yet again, Mike Ford.

#53 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 03:08 PM:

P.S. Joe @ 21: I think there probably are some people interested in that kind of thing who might want your archives. It seems to me there was something on Boing-Boing recently about that (IIRC, not the Pew Reports item, a different one.)

#54 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 03:09 PM:

Paula @16:
Distribution and context...excellent strands to bring into this plait of ideas. A few quibbles and meditations*:

If someone's never been exposed to quality goods, or never taught what and why about "quality," or how to think critically, or is obdurate about dismissing the scientific method in favor of uncritical credo... that person is probably going to not be able to distinguish crap from quality and won't care about distinguishing crap from quality.

I think you do people a disservice here. I think that most of us have been exposed, at one point or another, to enough quality that they know it when they see it. It's simply that not everyone uses quality as their prime criterion for evaluating content; some use orthodoxy, or utility, or some other value.

We do the same in other contexts. Consider a fine handmade rug from Nepal, each of its hundreds of thousands of knots individually tied by the hands of an underpaid and exploited child. Its quality is indisputable -- such rugs last for years, even generations. It is beautiful. And I wouldn't buy it under any circumstances, because the manner of its creation is repugnant to me, and I will not support a market for such things.


Regarding community and quality, one size almost never fits much less flatters all. (Flatters might not be the word I want, the word I want denotes adornment that improves how someone appears and puts them in a positive light, highlights them positively, etc.)

It's a good term to use in balance with "fits", but a better standalone choice might be "suits".

I agree that one specific solution would never fit every community. You'd have to start with a very loose idea of what you want, and then accept that each community would move in that direction in its own ways. Finding some Grand Unified Theory of curating conversations is all very well in theory, but not really practical in real life.

Besides, it might be useful to have a little evolutionary competition and cross-fertilisation out there.


What I'm proposing above, is that context matters. "Give me a lever to push with and I will move the Earth," involves there having to be some fulcrum available for the lever, a person to push on the lever, and of course the Earth for the person to push the Earth with. The fulcrum usually goes unremarked and left out as requirement.

An excellent point.

This thread is actually, unintentionally, a worked example in the importance and unimportance of context. I originally wanted context for the quotes that Patrick posted, but the tone of the discussion got in the way. So I took them out of their context, and saw where they led me. (Actually, much of what we're noodling around here is the a wider and less commercial iteration of what Gavin Bell actually presented, but I didn't know that until the bloggers caught up with themselves.)

-----
* that would make a good name for a blog

#55 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 03:22 PM:

I keep reading the parenthetical part of the title as "a mediation in the sunlight." Is that what curating a conversation is? It seems to work.

#56 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 03:24 PM:

I are a doofus. By conflating two versions, I ended up trying to rhyme "path" with "bees." No "eye" and "symmetry" free pass there, I'm afraid.

OK, take two:

The conversation's fractal. How to find
Community may be one garden path
After another. Gardens of the mind
Need gardeners plus bees; you do the math.
We also serve, who only pollinate
A Fibonacci series of remarks,
Roses of verse, twined on the garden gate,
An argument like fuchsia, shooting sparks,
Elaborations full as double blooms.
The vine of listening's indeterminate;
It is the green that limns these outdoor rooms.
And, should we get a blight of bile or hate,
A poison flower tipped with spiky horns,
The gardener comes in nd clps th thrns.

#57 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 03:34 PM:

heresiarch @18:
Imagine a Digg that’s designed to track individuals’ tastes. Instead of creating a single front-page list, every list is personal: as each user browses around, they tag things they like, and people they like. If a comment or a post strikes them as particularly intelligent, that alias/person (independent of site), along with the comment, is added to a list of People I Think Are Neat. If a Person I Think Is Neat posts to a blog, or some of them show up on a comment thread, the user gets notified. If the user thinks someone is really extra neat, they can go a browse that person’s list of neat things, and see if any of them appeal. It’s a system designed to privilege personal connections over group identities, individuals over sites. Each individual can create a hand-tailored community of their own, reflecting as precisely as possible their own quirks and interests.

I love this idea, both as expressed here and as touched on further on.

This requires a few things, some technical, some social. As usual, the technical elements are the easier ones to implement.

You need a consistent IDs across the web. OpenID looks like the best contender for a consistent, verified and lasting identity. There would also have to be tracking across websites and communities so you could see who was where. Here I'll just wave my hand reassuringly and mutter things about GreaseMonkey or Facebook or Web 2.0*.

The difficult thing, I think, is getting enough people willing to be followed about on the web. Some of us have sufficiently unified and distinctive identities that we can be tracked. (Patrick and Teresa, of course, but also me...Google "evilrooster" and there lies my history) But that kind of thing opens one up for stalking, identity theft, and many kinds of dreadful creepiness†. I think it will take some time before enough people get over these fears.

If good content produces good communities, and vice versa, can that teach us anything about why communities fail? Do they fail because their content sucks?

I have been watching a former community of mine wither. I even came back -- something I swore I would never do -- and Cassandra'd at them. They may yet pull through. What happened for them, anyway, is that the web changed. Other places had better stuff and lower entry thresholds. It stopped being fun. And once the people stopped coming, attrition set in. "Too many cobwebs, not enough spinners," confided one who stayed.

Let me propose a corollary to Sturgeon’s Law: Everyone can agree the 90% of everything is crap, but no one will agree which 90% that is.

Let me propose a toast to heresiarch, who has thought a very clever thing. Now if we can only keep the context of the content, generated within this community, so it is not lost...hmmm....

-----
* I hereby dub this "Strossing". Not to be confused with "Strossing out", definitions of which are invited.
† another potential blog name.

#58 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 03:36 PM:

Clifton@52: It was only a little effort. I poetize like breathing, mostly. Then again, I'm asthmatic, so that might not be saying much. Mostly, though, I like Twain's remark about "exuding the stuff, as the otter exudes the precious otter of roses."

#59 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 04:24 PM:

elise 56: I wondered about that rhyme! But no one else said anything, and I had a nervous suspicion that I was missing an inside joke, or something. So I kept mum (npi).

Were you taught that nonsense about "rhymes to the eye" being used in Shakespeare's day, too? Even in High School I had figured out what was really going on...'loved' and 'proved' rhymed in Elizabethan English! Rhymes to the eye, my upper back thigh.

#60 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 04:35 PM:

elise @ 56 and just about everybody else, too.

First, elise, your poem is terrific, and it brings up one of the fundamental points I want to comment on. This has been a very dense thread; I want to remark on a number of basic themes that have been brought up already, and I'm expecting more.

Community value versus individual value

(Gardens of the mind
Need gardeners plus bees; you do the math.
):

We're looking at a spectrum of needs and requirements here, with most of them at the two ends of individual and community. But community is fractal, though I think the requirements are not quite scale-invariant, so a spectrum is probably a good model.

An individual wants a way to record where interesting things are, find out when more interesting things are created by known interesting people, and search out more unknown interesting things and people without having to jump randomly into the web and trust to luck. An example: my default browser page is my customized Google homepage, which has some basic tools like email, calendar, weather forecast, and todo lists, and a whole slew of links and RSS feeds. When I find an interesting link or (preferably) feed, I stick it on the homepage; occasionally I remove one that's gone dormant or ceased to interest me. Right now there are just under 40 different sites with links or multi-link feeds pointed at them; I suspect I could handle fewer than twice that number with this technology before getting overwhelmed.

There are two major technological improvements I'd like to see for that general class of widget: a way to reliably filter the feeds so as to show only the items from a given site that fit my interests (so I can have more sites represented for a given amount of attention span), and some way to get the next level of abstraction: a way to automatically find links I might be interested in and present them as if they were coming from one or more aggregated feeds, say collected by type or subject.

The same sort of tools could be applied to posts, threads, comments, poster IDs, and subjects on a community like ML or a particular LJ blog. This gives the individual a way to find the most interesting stuff in the face of the proverbial internet firehose. Note that there's a short-term use for archiving here: I might discover an interesting thread days after it started, but while it is still going on; with good filtering I might be able to ignore those items in the thread I'm less interested in, and skim through until I'm uptodate enough to join the discussion. Important note: all these mechanisms should tag and weigh things from the point of view of the individual, since I don't have the same criteria, nor do I categorize things in the same way as others might.

That's bottom-up for the individual, now top-down for the community. There are global critera and categories that are important at various levels of community: a whole blog site, one thread, a branching subthread, etc. Some of them involve moderation (is this post germane to a given thread; does it meet the criteria for a civil response, etc). As with individuals, and as I said in my previous post, these things shouldn't be automatic, they should be used by the humans and the software in collaboration.

One way the individual and community interact is that a community tag could be used as the initial value (possibly modified by known mappings from this community's categories to this individual's categories) for an individual's tag for that item. And community tags in some cases might be created by looking at individuals' tags.

Design versus Growth

I agree that trying to foresee all the twists and turns a community will go through in its development is hopeless, and trying to get everything right the first time is clueless. But design is (at least in my design philosophy) more about making sure the artifacts you create are easy to extend, alter, and repurpose than about getting exactly the right implementation the first time. And you don't have to wait to ship the best, but you can incrementally ship better and better as you go along.

This is good for several reasons. First, your tools can grow and change to match the changes in the community, both scale and purpose. Second, tools can be reused in similar applications for other communities that are similar but not the same. Also, it ought to be possible to have the tools themselves track how they are used* so as to get feedback on how well they work, and what they could be extended to do.

What is a "conversation"?

One obvious example of a conversation is what we're doing here in this thread. But there are other kinds of content that fit the definition, I think. Let's take the broadest possible concept: "a conversation is a collection of atomic units of content" as a basic definition and see what fits in.

Some of you may have spent time at Shadow Unit. If you haven't seen it, it's a site created by several SFF writers as a sort of virtual TV show, with episodes (1st one was just posted last Sunday), and a vast collection of collateral material and message board threads. One neat thing is that several of the show's characters have LJs, and they blog regularly, and comment on each other's blogs. Also, some of the writers comment (the meta has been known to cause headaches throughout the web) on the blogs, and some fans have posted there as well. I call these blog threads, fictional though they may be, conversations. I expect to see more such conversations in the near-future, and things that are even more unorthodox and unexpected.

Another kind of conversation is an automatic (or semi-automatic) aggregation of items with a some common characteristics and an interest value for some individual or community. At its simplest, this might mean an aggregation of posts by bloggers that examine a common subject or theme, or that respond to each other, even though they were posted on different, unrelated sites.

I'm not going to attempt to list kinds of conversations beyond this, I just wanted to point out how diverse the notion can become.

* I know, there are privacy issues, and a lot of other nasty questions here, but it might be worth thinking about them.

#61 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 04:48 PM:

Serge (#50) Rosaleo perhaps? Or some variation thereof. Referring to elise's usual preferred nom-de-net.

#62 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 05:21 PM:

I think that Elise must surely be the aforesaid Precious Otter of Roses.

#63 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 05:24 PM:

Serge #50: That assumes that someone is pining for you.

#64 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 05:26 PM:

Fragano @ 63... Trying to derail this conversation into a punfest? Vile temptor!

#65 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 05:26 PM:

Xopher @ 59: Were you taught that nonsense about "rhymes to the eye" being used in Shakespeare's day, too?

My high school (or maybe college freshman, it's been a while) English teacher told us that Blake would have pronounced "symmetry" to rhyme with "eye," and a quick listen to the Copper Family (who pronounce "lovely" as "love-lie" even when not rhyming it) would seem to back him up.

#66 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 06:00 PM:

I think that Brooks' first point @19, which I'd call the Jeff Goldblum maxim*, bears some considering. Why are we doing this? Are we really going to use it? Are we going to use it enough to justify the effort? Or is it just Everest-work?

Attention, after all, is single-threaded. I may have nine‡ tabs open on my browser right now, plus two Skype chats and a TextPad document, but that's just lying to myself, pretending that opened = read = processed = internalised.

With limited attention and the fire-hose of new content always turned on and aimed at us, why would we look back at old stuff? Even the old stuff that wasn't for reading once and then just knowing, but bears rereading, takes time away from the new! shiny! content that we're all frantically typing into comment boxes right now.

I can think of a few reasons to go back, in no particular order and with no claim to completeness.


  • To establish prior art in a patent claim

  • To check the context in which an idea arose, and see whether one's own concerns/objections/ideas were already addressed or considered. (This works until there is so much context and background that the new reader is overwhelmed, gives up, and posts without reading anything†)

  • To check the context of a quote (for instance, in a political campaign, when things are often taken out of context and spun.)

  • To mine for comments to take out of context and spin.

  • To read or reread for pleasure (per Clifton @52)

I think that the first four points are the ones that make me want to have access to older conversations. Knowledge is power, whether it be the origins of a good idea or the source of a damaging quote. I want a level playing field, where everyone can access the goods, not just the few who have the memory or resources to descend into the bit-mines looking for diamonds.

-----
* Jurassic Park: your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.
† The posting that started this thread is an example of that.
‡ Ironically, one of them is The Autumn of the Multitasker, which is about how we can't multitask very well. I think. I was halfway through it when I realised I wanted to finish this comment before reading more.

#67 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 06:09 PM:

Did Abi say 'Jeff Goldblum?

Dr. Grant: Did you read Malcolm's book?
[Erik nods]
Dr. Grant: So?
Erik: I don't know. It was kinda preachy. And too much Chaos. Everything Chaos. It just seemed like the guy was high on himself.
Dr. Grant: That's two things we have in common.

#68 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 06:11 PM:

Sorry, Abi, I couldn't help myself.

#69 ::: Malthus ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 06:20 PM:

Heather@38:

Yes, I like that idea. When I originally posted, I had been thinking about the possible some of those toys on the Net that will, given a word, put up a graph of all related concepts in their dictionary. I think that it would be pretty interesting if one of the larger communities-with-tagging would do something with that -- but I think it would be too much work for not enough return for something the size of Making Light.

abi@36: I completely understand your point about restricted language. To a certain extent, I was talking about something incremental that could be applied here without too much work/difficulty. And on the other hand, it does express my dissatisfaction with certain styles of tagging. For example, while I find Flickr tagging to be fairly useful, I've never seen any use to the Slashdot tagging.

#70 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 06:28 PM:

Tim 65: Exactly, and your teacher was better-informed than most.

#71 ::: Tazistan Jen ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 06:44 PM:

I think this will turn out to be a really hard problem. And the reason I think this is because of the Amazon book recommending algorithm. When I first saw it, I was really excited. But then I realized that it mostly recommended other books by the same authors (no duh) and other books in the same genre (not very much duh). And after all these years it hasn't gotten very much better.

If my two favorite authors are Jane Austen and Terry Pratchett, I don't want recommendations for other books by them, and nor do I want recommendations of other Regency novels or fantasy.

I want books by people who make me laugh and use irony well. And how is Amazon going to figure this out? Is there someone else out there just like me? Is anyone going to be clicking the "irony" tag, other than me? I don't see how this gets solved.

#72 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 06:44 PM:

Brooks Moses: And I almost never read any of these more than once.

But I do. I use things like Lj, Making Light, and any number of fora where I participte as sources of storage; for both my words, and others.

I go back and re-read old threads. Some of them have been mined by other sites (About.com uses one of my disquisitions on Interrogation as it's source).

Information is of value. One of the things I like about that is the lack of loss. There are a few people I know (or knew of) who have since died. What they wrote is still up. They can't speak anymore, but the voice wasn't stilled when they died.

I have a large amount of writing which is on paper, and unless those APAs, letter, newspaper articles; columns, cards, etc. are collected somehow, they are dead to the world. Some are archived, so as long as 1: the archivist keeps them, and 2: the paper survives (there are two-copies, archived of every word which went into my college paper, one to the EIC for that term, one in the morgue),they survive.

But absent some outside referent, who will know to look for people who kept copies of Myriad when I was active? Or my HS school paper?

But if someone wants to look into the attitudes toward interrogation in the early oughts of the 21st century, they can find a lot of what I wrote. Maybe that will point them to other writings (to see what shaped my present thinking).

Re content: We keep being told we are in a "visual medium now" I keep wanting to ask people who tell me this means words aren't all that needful, because this is the "MTV Age" (though this is much less common than it used to be) to remove the speakers from their televisions, and see how comprehensible the programming is.

elise: I used to be more poetic (though sonnets have never been my meter), but of late I've not been reading as much, and so the muscles have witherèd. I am grateful you (and so many others) don't so suffer.

#73 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 06:47 PM:

re 45: Wikipedia acts like a community, but in the sense that, say, California or China is a community. Which is to say, there is some commonality and assumed openness to interaction based upon participation in an overall shared purpose, but the thing is simply too big to function as a community as everyone imagines by default. But it isn't really an organization either, for the same reason that California isn't an organization.

#74 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 06:48 PM:

abi @ 66

I think there are a number of good reasons to want to archive access to a conversation. One I mentioned in my previous post is based on the notion that conversations on the web need not be synchronous, so I may want to catch up on a conversation that started before I found out about it.

Another is that, as I also mentioned, the notion of conversation is potentially much broader than the definition we've been giving to it. I might very well be interested in a conversation that occurred some time ago because of the people (real or otherwise) who participated in it. And a conversation could in fact be a synthetic aggregate of content that was never before considered as one single unit.

You're right that attention is a scarce resource, and needs to be conserved and divided optimally among as many interesting things as possible. But I wonder if we can't have some technological aid there. I've spent a little time looking at that in the past, and I think it would be possible to build an assistant that could learn priorities of particular links, feeds, whatever, and order the display of them to match. It could base priorities on interest, time since last viewing, relation to other links recently visited, etc.

#75 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 07:01 PM:

Bruce Cohen @ 66.... I think it would be possible to build an assistant that could learn priorities of particular links, feeds, whatever, and order the display of them to match

Hopefully the assistant won't be built by Ron Goulart.

#76 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 07:02 PM:

Serge #64: Not at all, since you are intent on policing the punctilio of discussion here, I'm certainly not going to lead us into a pun-fest.

I think, however, that we need to consider that conversation is as much (and perhaps more) about communing as it is about communicating.

#77 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 07:07 PM:

Vade retro, Fragano!

#78 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 07:22 PM:

Bruce @74:
Short comment, because it's gone 1am for me. I'll do more tomorrow.

And a conversation could in fact be a synthetic aggregate of content that was never before considered as one single unit.

That sideswipes something I've noticed on Making Light itself.

We think we're running multiple parallel conversations; what I write here is related to what you've written above. But there's horizontal crossover as well. We deal with each other in multiple threads at the same time. I've seen quarrels spill from one thread to another; we all have. More subtly, I've watched anger build silently in one thread and explode in another, to some bafflement.

That too is a conversation we don't consider - the entirety of Making Light as a single entity, as well as a collection of smaller ones.

#79 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 07:38 PM:

Serge #77: You have me confused with my old friend S.A. Tanas, who was expelled from Paradise as an invertebrate punster.

#80 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 08:22 PM:

Though this is an obvious response to Brooks's remarks in #20, I hope it's not a trivial one.

So, then, my question: What is it, other than the fact that -- like Everest -- the possibilty of archiving these conversations is there, that makes it worth saving them?
[...]
Beyond that, do conversations preserve their worth beyond the interaction of those participating?

As many of you know, I have been researching Robert Heinlein's history.

The collaboration between Heinlein as author and John W. Campbell, Jr. as editor, beginning in 1939, is pivotal to a change in science fiction that affected all subsequent history.

Heinlein lived in California (at first), JWC lived in New Jersey, so much of their relationship was postal.

When books of Campbell's letters came out, they had practically none of his correspondence with Heinlein. Grumbles from the Grave, a selection of Heinlein's letters, had a few exchanges with JWC, but left me unsatisfied.

Heinlein donated his papers to the University of California at Santa Cruz. Last year, his estate made scanned copies available for a modest fee. So I bought all the Heinlein-Campbell letters, four boxes' worth. I was not disappointed.

These guys wrote letters, sometimes long ones, several times a week, for several years. They start stiff and formal, but after a few stories have been submitted, they get more chatty. They talk about editorial changes, of course. They talk about word rates. They recommend books to one another. They talk about their hobbies. They talk about other SF writers-- the Heinleins were part of a fairly large group in the Los Angeles area. They kick around ideas for future stories. As war looms, they talk about politics. Science. Military matters. Economics. Family.

The shadows of future stories appear in the conversation. The ghosts of stories never written do, as well. JWC shares ideas that RAH doesn't pick up; we can recognize some as stories other authors eventually wrote. Prominent pros and fans appear in the narrative; some of them wrote their own memoirs of the time eventually.

When the war starts, the Heinleins come east and stay with the Campbells while RAH tries to get back into the Navy. The conversation was still going on, but it happened over the kitchen table, and never got written down. It resumes as the Heinleins move to Philadelphia.

It's 800 pages or so, from a long-dead conversation. But there are quite a few letters I find very interesting, shedding light on the people and the fiction and the events of the 1940s. I have found quite a few things to think about and write about in there.

Okay, so here in the Fluorosphere, we know there are individuals who have become prominent SF and fantasy writers, and are still (it is to be hoped) near the beginnings of their careers. And plenty more are notable for other sorts of endeavors.

I daresay there are others who will become notable some day.

For a certain kind of reader, it will be enjoyable to sift archives and find conversations a favorite author conducted. What insight might be gained about someone's preoccupations, or working methods, or political opinions, or plans for future stories?

Next year, some teenager, somewhere, will fall in love with the books of John M. Ford.

Won't it be fun to find Mike's postings here, and to follow the conversations in which he immersed himself? The peculiar people with whom he associated? The interesting things they might have written?

You don't have to be a literary biographer to appreciate the correspondence of people in the past.

I agree that it would be better to join the conversation in the present. But there is also value in the frozen threads of yesteryear's discourse. (A few here collect old fanzines.)

It's the only way, now, that that teenager can get to know Mike Ford a little better.

#81 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 08:26 PM:

No, Bill, it's not a trivial answer. Thanks for sharing.

#82 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 08:29 PM:

Well said, Bill.

Reading that correspondence sounds awesome and very interesting.

#83 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 08:35 PM:

Thanks for the mention of Ravelry; I just sent it to my daughter the knitter.

#84 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 08:36 PM:

Bill Higgins #80: It doesn't have to be a favourite author, or even an author. One of the people whose letters sparked my interest in creativity and creative people and in looking at worlds that I would never experience myself was Felix Mendelssohn, a volume of whose letters my father owned. I read that as a twelve-year-old, without much understanding of the milieu (that came later -- who was that fellow Goethe who wrote a poem for the boy Mendelssohn, and why should I care?). But it was amazing to encounter Goethe, and popes, and emperors, and Queen Victoria and the world of early nineteenth century Europe in those pages in a way that conventional histories would not and could not have shown me those people and places, through the eyes of a thinking, alert human being, and through his concerns, personal and political.

#85 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 08:42 PM:

Bill, thanks for the counterpoint to my musings contra archival of conversations. You provide another eloquent expression of why it may be valuable and worthwhile.

#86 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 11:09 PM:

"Tags" tend to be metadata and lacking meaning without having data to tag/attach to.

Teresa's invention of disemvowelling is a highly significant milestone--it's a trump to attempts at hecklers' vetoes--it doesn't gag the heckler, but it removes the hecklers' derailing powers and disruptiveness. The heckler trying to blow up the forum with disruptive behavior, suddenly gets gets the gain control applied toning them down to background noise and annoyance level.

abi #36 and others:
Vocabularies differ from person to person. Too rigid a form stultifies conversations and eradicatives creativity and innovation and through. One thing about metadata is that it's outside the content it's pointing at....

abi #39

If you automate crap, all you get is really fast crap

That's not all, it's lots more crap, about the crap....

Elise #56

The thorn got clipped, it disappeared from the alphabet....

Bruce #60

Among the many reasons I regard Mr Jobs has having derailed computer user interfaces on a 25+ year detour to places I never wanted to visit much less have to deal with, is that he got in the way of the development of UIs I LIKED and WANTED more developmeht of, and caused effectively the termination of exploration of other modes.

I prefer multidimensional network-diagram-influenced interfaces, which allow defining types of connections, assigning names to the different types of linkages, being able to sort by link type, and network diagrams which I could see a -functional- picture and following a roadmap of content and types of content and select by type, and jump from node to node and link to link and open up what I wanted to open and skip over stuff between --hyperlinks, but not implemented the way most things implement thing, I want exploded views, and to be able to -fold- layers and shortcut through them.

Mr Jobs' junk was RELENTLESSLY serial linear monotonic.

And as most of you who know me personally are aware and probably most of you who've read much of what I post here, serial-linear is NOT how I do things/think! Macintoshes have ALWAYS driven me bugfuck, from many different directions.


#87 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 11:23 PM:

abi #66

I have a mere 41 windows open at the moment on this machine--I have a raging case of something that if it's not ADHD is closely related, and keeping the windows open, provides me important information to me about what I was looking at/thinking about about/intending to go back to/monitoring, simply by having the windows open. I don't have to have it in my memory, to get reminded, or write it down and lose the notebook when the situation is ephemeral, etc.

I have two windows open on Making Light--one open to your post, and the other where I'm writing responding to it. I hate, hate, hate, HATE it when I can't do things like that, because I get lost otherwise, scrolling around, not having what I am replying to or commenting on directly in front of me to for reference.

When writing things I typically have stacks of printed versions or at least one of them which I read through and annotate and go back and forth between the computer and the paper... the problem is that I can't have the whole thing spread around me to have on display all at the same time on a computer, can't stick my fingers in between several different book leaves or stick bookmarks in them and have the page numbers and text on display -simulataneously- on the exact same copy I'm working with.... and word processing programs have very nasty habits of blowing up when leaving too many documents open (often I am working from document to document, too..)

I don't see how people can single-thread...

#88 ::: Malthus ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2008, 11:34 PM:

Fragano@79: Surely not as an inveterbrate punster; snakes have spines, after all.

Paula@86: Do you have an example of the type of UI you're talking about? One feature of Firefox that I like, which may be along the lines you're talking about, is the way that it will call up a miniaturized view of the webpage at the other side of a link when you mouse over the link.

#89 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 12:07 AM:

Too tired to point to specific postings (except to say, Elise, that was even more loverly than your jewelry)

One concern I have about anything in electronic media is the possibility of it being altered. If I have a book, hard copy, IT WILL NOT CHANGE. I can go back twenty years later and reread it. It may affect me differently than it did, but all the words are there. Can we be sure this will be true of a discussion here? (the web, not ML) Yes, I read Orwell at a young and impressionable age.

The other is indexing. I am very glad Kelly is doing this for ML, but most of the web is not indexed, not accessible except through search engines that also could be jiggered. I trust the integrity of ML because I trust the moderators. But this is an unusual site. And there are bits I would like hard copy, the Light Sonnets, for example. I don't want to just print them out, though I guess I could. I could even copy them and save them to disk. But it isn't the same.

Part of this is that formally printed matter, books, chapbooks, even zines, have a level of acceptablity that online postings do not. Or so it seems to me. This is changing, I realize, but because of my first point, I am wary of this trend.

Or maybe this is just the nattering of an old librarian who worships books.

Sorry this is so long, I'm too tired to edit it down.

#90 ::: joel hanes ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 01:36 AM:

Ursula LeGuin quotes are the way to my heart.

I think I'm in kemmer.

#91 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 01:50 AM:

R.M. Koske @ 25: del.icio.us looks really neat--it incorporates a lot of the ideas that I was discussing. I'll have to play with it for a while, see how it works.

(I'm glad people liked my corollary!)

Malthus @ 28 and 30: I really like your idea at 28, but I don't like the one at 30. The first is tech automating an aggravating task; the second is tech limiting human range. I prefer to get machines to comprehend at a human level, rather than forcing humans down to a machine-comprehensible level.

abi @ 35: "The markers of a conversation gone bad are probably different, more about form than content."

How is conversation more than mere content? I think failed content is content that fails to reward my attention. Conversation, I think, requires more: even in a conversation with fascinating content, it fails if it doesn't provoke response. Perhaps bad conversation is conversation that however fascinating, doesn't invite engagement.

Brooks Moses @ 44: I'm imagining little threads in the gray along the left-hand margin, tying each post to its predecessors and descendants--click to jump to the next post in the line. I can't decide if it would be pretty or chaotic.

I think it's important to avoid nesting, though. The cross pollination of posts is a neat and vital part of the ML environment.

elise @ 46 and @ 56: Wonderful, and then amazing. =)

abi @ 54: "I think that most of us have been exposed, at one point or another, to enough quality that they know it when they see it. It's simply that not everyone uses quality as their prime criterion for evaluating content; some use orthodoxy, or utility, or some other value."

I think it's even more fundamental: quality is a subjective judgement. It means different things to different people.

abi @ 57: "You need a consistent IDs across the web. OpenID looks like the best contender for a consistent, verified and lasting identity."

I don't think you need OpenID. I think it could work with the system we've got here on Making Light: a 'nym and an email-address. I think for a lot of people, that's pretty consistent over every site they comment on or blog on. It wouldn't be quite as perfect as OpenID (so, is heresiarch on ML the same person as heresiarch514 on Pandagon? hmm), but the fact that you could do it now without persuading the whole internet to adopt a new standard (ha ha ha) really outweighs the cons.

"The difficult thing, I think, is getting enough people willing to be followed about on the web."

Yeah. It struck me a couple times as I was writing that it is a bit like a massive online stalking engine. That might be an argument against OpenID--sometimes a less verifiable and less public identity is safer, I think.

Tazistan Jen @ 71: "I want books by people who make me laugh and use irony well. And how is Amazon going to figure this out?"

This made me think of the Pandora music project, where they went through hundreds of thousands of songs and anatomized each one to compile lists of their musical traits. The recommendations that they give aren't based on What Other People Bought, but on what songs have similar musical elements: syncopated rhythms, extensive vocal harmony, acoustic istruments, etc. I wonder if anyone could do that for literature?

#92 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 02:13 AM:

Paula Lieberman @ 85, 86

I hear you, Paula. I've been diagnosed with ADD, probably had it all my life and didn't know it; but that's probably what makes me keep my computer on all the time with lots of windows open to keep track of what I'm doing. One of my Firefox windows right now has 30 open tabs. 6 of them on Making Light threads, 5 or 6 on various Google searches I need for a story I'm writing, 4 on various parts of Shadow Unit, which is highly nonlinear. This requires a computer that can go many days between reboots, and isn't apt to crash because I look at it sideways.

On the other hand, I order things spatially, so the position of a window is significant relative to others, and I can't depend on being in focus on a particular window at any given time. And I love how I can grab a link with my nouse on a Firefox tab and drop it into a new tab, creating a new window without leaving the one I'm in.

Heather Rose Jones @ 38

The idea of semantic nets as a user interface makes a lot of sense to me. Graphs are multi-dimensional, but you don't need to map them directly into 2D screen space to display and manipulate them because you can treat them as hyperlinks for some operations, and because links from a common node don't need to be geometrically orthogonal to model separate paths. And adding additional graphic cues like color, texture, and node shape allows really dense, but easily distinguishable displays.

Magenta Griffith @ 89

Electronic media do raise concerns about the lifetime of reliable storage, and security against vandalism and malicious alteration. Books aren't immune to these problems; they go out of print and become unavailable; if not printed on archival paper with archival ink they tend to deteriorate over just a few decades*, and when new editions are printed, the content can be changed. Granted the problems aren't as acute, but they are there. But I think there are at least partial solutions, based on both technology and social engineering. For example, if archival media are read only but allow overlays for later comments, conversations can be added to without danger of changing the original content.

Bill Higgins, Beam Jockey @ 80

Excellent example of a need for conservation of conversations, thank you. I find myself very interested in that period of time in SF; it was just a few years before I got into SF, and started to hear some of the stories about the people and events of that period, but at the time I was too young to be really concerned about what had happened before I came on the scene. Now I'm very interested in that period**, but a lot of what was known was not recorded or was lost.

abi @ 78

Yes, this is what I meant when I said that conversation is fractal. It occurs at many scales in time, space, and number of conversationalists. I even think it is useful to think about some of the records we keep individually such as notes, todo lists, and calendars, as very small-scale conversations.

* I have paperbacks from the 60s and 70s whose paper is now the color of good caramel.
** ISTM that the period of history we each know least about is the period from a few years before our birth to sometime late in our childhood; that period is raraly recorded in detail and certainly not in any comprehensive way until long after. And it's a period when we weren't around, or at least not around enough to notice and remember a of things that might interest us later.

#93 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 03:21 AM:

heresiarch @ 91: I think it's important to avoid nesting, though. The cross pollination of posts is a neat and vital part of the ML environment.

I don't think that avoiding nesting (or, at least, branched threading) is necessary for that; certainly, the places I read on Usenet seem to get lots of cross-pollination of threads despite the threadedness of the conversation.

On the other hand, I do see the single-threaded nature of the conversations here as fulfilling an important role -- it reduces the amount of posting, because it's less workable to reply to anything but the things near the end of the thread. (Also, it means that things are largely linear; the branches converge rather than endlessly diverging, and reach a stable dynamic equilibrium of breadth and interthreadedness.) As a result, it's actually possible to keep up with the comments on several of the posts here -- unlike, say, rec.arts.sf.fandom, which probably has about the same number of people and famously requires the efforts of a committee to read all of it.

I think that's a virtue. Making Light is on the ragged edge of being so popular that nobody goes there any more because it's too crowded, and things that keep it from going past that edge are to me good things, even if it often means that I don't get to say things I'd like to.

#94 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 05:00 AM:

Bill@80: Wow! Neat! How can I get my hands on a copy of those letters?

Brooks@93: I take it you haven't read rasseff in a while? It's been deflating for some time; last year some sort of threshold was reached and volume dropped dramatically.

#95 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 05:11 AM:

abi, I wonder if a tool which would provide a useful first pass at categorizing conversations would look a lot like the tool that generates Amazon's "statistically improbable words/phrases" (here's a description of the general algorithm: http://www.s-anand.net/Statistically_improbable_phrases_2.html) or the term cloud over on Neil Gaiman's journal (http://www.neilgaiman.com/journal/clouds/terms/), except post-by-post and including the comments. Basically, you want to draw out phrases which occur more often in a particular conversation than in the blog as a whole.

Having a little line at the bottom of each post with the statistically improbable phrases under discussion might be a neat way to draw people into discussions they weren't following when the discussion has veered into a topic of interest, or flag to the moderators when a conversation has veered wildly off-course. (Though it might take a while before the new topic of conversation built up enough posts to show up on the improbable phrases chart.) It would take some tuning -- I think it's a fickle algorithm, dependent a lot on the nature and size of your corpus and the level at which you tokenize -- but seems like it could be a useful tool.

#96 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 07:07 AM:

Bruce Cohen @ 92: "And I love how I can grab a link with my nouse on a Firefox tab and drop it into a new tab, creating a new window without leaving the one I'm in."

You can also left click and choose "Open in a new tab." The one thing you can't do, which I really wish you could, is drag a tab from one window to another. (I use separate windows as a second-order sort-blogs in one, web comics in another, Making Light in one of its very own.)

"For example, if archival media are read only but allow overlays for later comments, conversations can be added to without danger of changing the original content."

It reminds me of how Photoshop has evolved: first they added layers, allowing you to retain the information underneath; then they added masks, meaning you didn't even have to trim out the extraneous bits of the upper image. You can even apply filters as masks, so you don't alter the underlying data. Now it's entirely possible to create elaborate collages without doing a single thing you can't undo later.

I guess there's a natural tendency to abhor data loss.

Brooks Moses @ 93: "(Also, it means that things are largely linear; the branches converge rather than endlessly diverging, and reach a stable dynamic equilibrium of breadth and interthreadedness.)"

That's what I like about it--it forces people to read every part of the conversation, not just the bits that they have already decided to be interested in. (I think of nesting as not endless divergences but as ever-tightening spirals; that might explain our differences of opinion. =)

#97 ::: bill wringe ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 08:43 AM:

Elise @ 26:

I liked the first version better: the Turkish carpet principle (including a deliberate mistake because nothing human is perfect) might be informing my judgments...

#98 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 09:00 AM:

Malthus #88: Drat! I knew someone would catch that!

#99 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 09:08 AM:

Fragano... Meanwhile, if we want inVETerate punsters, there is Ginger.

#100 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 09:49 AM:

Elsewhere I've seen some good use of links to older articles (the Oliver Sacks blog in the NY Times online, and everything posted on Science Daily), but ML's ongoing conversations aren't like that.

Can new tools supplement the Index and "read all by"? Unless I ever embark on some research project, keeping up with the new stuff is all I can manage!

#101 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 09:49 AM:

Paula #16:

One thing that strikes me about your comments (and that resonates with my own experience) is that the world is incredibly broad, and there's no one standard of quality. I think growing up (from college on) with the net made this clear to me. Read fanfic or amateur erotica or whatever, and you'll soon learn a set of warnings/ratings. There is a well-developed genre of stories involving scary monsters dismembering people, and another involving people tying their lovers up and whipping them. In both cases, however good the craftsmanship of writing in the stories, if you're not into that sort of thing, those stories aren't going to be much fun to read. This lesson generalizes: The practical question with most works of art, and most writing and conversation, isn't just whether it's good; it's just as important to know whether it suits you. I think one of the most important lessons people can learn about literature and art is: It doesn't matter how many other people like this, or how critically acclaimed it is. If you don't like it, it's okay to not read/watch/look at it. Life's too short, and the pool of available art/literature/music is too large.

I think this generalizes. The best content for me is not necessarily the best for you, and I have a hard time imagining anyone could find it for me. I'm not sure what this implies for moderation, other than that I'd like communities I find and love, like ML, to survive, rather than being swallowed up by spam, overrun by trolls, or engulfed in flames.

#102 ::: SKapusniak ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 09:58 AM:

I'm convinced that threading is the devil.

I don't know why it's the devil, or by what precise mechanism it's devilry acts, but I've seen enough times the scenario where a place with good, or even exceptional conversation, gets popular enough that the people hosting it decide 'we need to put in threading!' and things are never the same ever again. It seems an inevitable signifier that the glory days are now in the past.

Maybe it's just the traffic getting too big to sustain a decent conversation, hits at exactly the point were people start feeling they need threading, but I don't really believe it.

Adding threading always seems to make things worse. Always.

#103 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 10:01 AM:

Serge@99: Here I am! Who's got their mussels in a knot? Who's feeling a bit limpet today? Don't clam up -- come on up for Dr. G's ministrations! It won't hurt a bit.

#104 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 10:01 AM:

Mez #34:

However, the widespread existence of "cheat codes" to change the region coding on many DVD players allows this to still work. I know an English mathematician who was living in the US some years ago, and had gotten a pirate satellite receiver, because nobody would sell him a legitimate package that let him watch cricket. He simply couldn't buy what he wanted, because the owners of the content had cleverly made it impossible for him to pay them for it.

#105 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 10:05 AM:

Bruce (92), Paula (87): On the other hand, having more than a one or two windows/tabs open drives me absolutely bugf*ck crazy. Too much input in my psychic space.

No one solution is going to work for everyone.

#106 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 10:12 AM:

Ginger @ 103... Going out on a limb, eh? As for coming on up for Dr. G's ministrations, the only Dr. G I have ever seen at work is the one with a show on Discovery Health and her specialty is autopsies, so I'll pass on your offer of ministrations.

#107 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 10:26 AM:

abi #66:

Another reason to go back to an old conversation is to mine it for cool ideas that were missed on the first pass. Imagine that it's 2012, and you're thinking about what might further improve the great moderation/community building/conversation tools of that day. You might benefit from rereading this thread, and seeing ideas that were kicked around, but maybe not used because it wasn't obvious how to apply them, or because there was a better approach that solved more problems at lower cost.

I'll admit I think of the scientific literature and technical discussions on weblogs/newsgroups as also a kind of conversation, so maybe this is coloring my take on this. It's pretty sensible to go back to old papers in the literature and see what clever ideas they had that got lost, because the low hanging research fruit led in another direction. (At least, it's sensible to do that in cryptography.)

#108 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 10:27 AM:

http://top2bottom.net/medley.html#notecards

Alas, there are no pictures....
NoteCards was originally written in the4 1980s by Xerox PARC, with Xerox being one of the runners-up for Worst Computer Industry Marketing and Sales (Tektronix owns the #1 spot of dishonor in a worst of breed class all of its own.... that Xerox made and sold computers and related hardware/software, is no furtive information, as is the same knowledge about Honeywell, Commodore, AT&T, etc., all of whom would have done a bad job selling ice in the desert to thirsty people. Tek, on the other hand, invented the graphics display terminal, workstation computers, 3-D displays, LCD panels, color LCDs, and a raft of other key computer technlogies and products... and the public has no clue unless they happened to stumble upon the information from third-party mention!) for a covert government agency, and being Xerox was actively opposed to actually making a commercial product of it. Eventually John Sybalsky who was a classmate of mine in college bought it, (found that out at a class reunion) and apparently he and his wife have a company that still owns and supports it, but it has no visibility to the public.

#109 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 10:30 AM:

Serge@ 106: I love Dr. G, although the show isn't as nicely done as some of the others. She clearly loves her job. Pathology likes to claim it has all the answers, but that depends on the skill of the pathologist -- and she's very skilled -- and the "answers", of course, come after the patient is no more. An ex-patient. I'll cut this short and move on to my next subject. ;-)

Now to move slightly back on topic: I normally have more than one tab open in Firefox, and more than one window open just to remind myself what I wanted and needed to do. If I don't, I'll forget. If the email is out of sight, it's out of mind.

Threading is something I've gotten used to, and it's nice because all the subconversations can be identified (particularly if you can change the header in your replies), but the original conversation does fracture into all the subconversations. Non-threading tends to keep all the conversations on the original topic -- but then it gets very unwieldy -- trying to find one post out of >600 is labor-intensive. If there were some way of tagging or linking to posts, it would remove the "need" for threading and make it slightly easier to maneuver through the long conversations.

#110 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 10:48 AM:

Paula #86: I love the idea of this interface you're describing. I think one trick would be a mode switch to change the nature of the links, or even what you used for nodes, edges, and labels.

One other issue: an interface has a certain cognitive complexity. An very complicated interface tends to take longer to learn than a simpler one, and may simply exclude folks who aren't smart enough to use it, or don't have the requisite attention span or who just don't like complicated presentations. I wonder if the graph kind of interface you're describing would be useful at many different levels of complexity....

I have to think about this. I'm another of the people who keeps a dozen or more windows open at once, using open windows to bookmark stuff I want to think about later or come back to.

#111 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 11:13 AM:

Hmmm (link poking around at the moment...)

Existential Graphs

http://www.jfsowa.com/cg/cgexamp.htm
http://www.jfsowa.com/cg/index.htm

==============================

Bruce #92
I order things spatially, so the position of a window is significant relative to others

Yes!
That was another of the things that drives me bugfuck about JobsJunk UI, the lack of spatial coherence... it's not the position of the window which matters, it's where the damn freaking mouse pointer is and if one's finger is pressing the damn mouse button or not, and the stupid what-the-fuck-is-THAT-supposed-to-mean?! icon...

If one belongs to "where-the-hell-is-the-whatever-that-I-was-doing-something-with-at-particular-time-in-particular-location" wetware-organizational-orientation locus, flat 2D displays with translation and rotation from stinking mouse to mouse pointer and lack of relevance of -where- a window and -where- a menu item is HIDING (Microsoft and the dropdown menus from hell and tabbed windows from hell, with no sane lookup and no jump around without having to move the frigging mouse all though the frigging UI--makes hunt and peck typing PLEASANT in comparison, at least the typewriter keys are in front of one in clear SIGHT!!!, copying Jobs)are part of UIs from hell. Add in icons, and I wanted not only to murder Jobs, but his ancestors, too, for progenitoring him!

Yes, I know he didn't invent the technology, but he stole it from Xerox which was NOT commercializing it, and worse still, he stole the CRAP and left the GOOD STUFF (NoteCards and GraphTalk) OUT!!!

=========

albatross #101
Being able to assess something as suitable for someone else doesn't mean one shares the tastes or lack of... that is, I have friends where one is a moviegoer and can generally determine if the film is something that in particular is or is not appropriate viewing for each of her housemates. She knows their tastes and they trust her judgment in the matter. So, she acts as a filter--she likes going to movies and has a much wider tolerance regarding "quality" and interest range in films than particularly one of the housemates--so the agreement is that she goes, and comes home and tells them if she thinks they would enjoy seeing /be interested in particular films or not and -why-.

SKapunsniak # 102

5th generation databases have content with lookup tables and pointers etc. to get to the content. Destroy the tables and views and while the data is still on the computer, most of the information content has been destroyed... sort of like a messy house with the owner gone, the metadata thtthe owner had is missing unless someone else can replicate it to some degree--...

Trying again--the order that letters are in to make words, that words are in to make sentences, that pictures are present in a book, are part of the information content of "a work." Scramble up the pieces and remove the index and enumeration and chapter demarcations, and there's a significant loss of information content.

In 5th generation database, the user is ADDING information, by doing a search or retrieval with a query.... that's why queries and such are so powerful, that are in effect metadata constructs creating customized works as their output....

#112 ::: Lance Weber ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 11:25 AM:

I need to make this interjection quick because it's Chore Day ( and I want to be deeply engaged on this topic because I've thought alot about it and dammit I'm busy with RL duties for awhile)

We don't have ADD/ADHD, we have NADD - Nerd Attention Deficit Disorder

Also, if your loved ones need help understanding your nerdness, Rand has written the best in-depth guide to living with us The Nerd Handbook. My wife highly recommends it :)

#113 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 11:37 AM:

Paula @111:

Your link is munged in a way I can't fix. Try again? Or are the URLs below it enough.

#114 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 11:57 AM:

Ginger @ 109... the "answers", of course, come after the patient is no more. An ex-patient

...after being too impatient.

One thing I don't quite understand is why guts are never seen on Dr.G's show. TIt always blurs out wherever guts are, or should be if there were guts.

(C'mon, you know you wanna make the pun that logically follows.)

#115 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 12:21 PM:

Paula Lieberman @ 108

Waitwaitwait - someone is still supporting Analyst? OMFG!

There were two absolutely prescient products in the computer industry that have still not even been equaled in terms of ease of use and and ease of engineering, as well as the applications that were built on them, and Analyst on top of the Xerox Smalltalk engine was one of them. It's not well known at all, but Smalltalk is still a major commercial language (three of the top 10 container shipping companies, {possibly more, my information is 5 years old} use it to track every single package in every single container of their systems, and a number of banks and financial houses are dependent on it), and it's still cutting edge technology: there's a Massively Distributed Collaboration System called Croquet being built on it, and a visual programming language kit called EToys running in it is shipped on the OLPC. I've been working with Smalltalk off and on since 1984, and I think it is still a great piece of technology.

The other one was the Symbolics Lisp Machine, which was going in a similar direction using different tools; again, marketing didn't have a clue as to what it was so they tried to sell it to the smallest market they could find: AI. I know a lot of the engineers from that company; when I attended conferences in my past life I'd see them all the time. Some of them, and several people from the old Smalltalk community, are still doing things that, if people would listen, would turn the world, not just the industry, on its ear.

As for Tektronix, all I can say is you just gave me a flashback. I was at Tek for more than 8 years, working on some of the projects that changed the industry - NOT. We invented the graphic workstation computer, which spawned a multi-billion dollar a year cluster of markets, and lost $100 million and some of our biggest customers doing it. We were one of the driving forces behind object-oriented programming, and actually made money at it, but refused to tell anyone, so ended up losing most of the advantage to an internal religious war (honest). I personally was one of two engineers who designed the basis for an entire new line of instrumentation based on distributing hardware across the net; the instrumentation divisions weren't interested (they wanted to build their instruments on top of OEM Microsoft-based computers because if you did that, you wouldn't lose your job for doing something new and different), and eventually the divisions shrank in market and market-share or went out of business.

Can you say, "What in the name of the trickster god were you idiots thinking?" I thought you could.

#116 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 12:49 PM:

Like Lance, I too have Chore Day (and Brother Guy is showing up tonight), but here's a quick answer to David Goldfarb at #94.

Visit the Heinlein Archives. Choose one of their groups of documents, pay online, and they'll park a big 80 MB PDF file on their site for a few days and send you the URL. This represents around 200 pages; they are images, not OCR, so you can't search the text.
Every page is watermarked and the file has your name on it. They don't want you passing it around the Web.

Being interested in Heinlein and space suits, I bought a box of his wartime correspondence and another of his Philadelphia Naval Air Material Center pages. (I know who was in his car pool from his gasoline ration forms.) I bought correspondence advising the Destination Moon filmmakers, the manuscript of "Misfit," notes for Have Space Suit, Will Travel, and some 1969 letters to his agent that include an account of his trip to NASA in Houston after Apollo 11. As I noted, I also bought four boxes of Campbell correspondence.

This came to a total of thirty bucks. Fairly reasonable.

You can get all Heinlein's manuscripts, and a great deal of his correspondence and scrapbooks. I think they have put more than half the archive online, and they will be adding more.

A book of his unproduced TV scripts, including a bunch of adaptations of his short stories, is being prepared now for Subterranean Press.

#117 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 12:53 PM:

Paula @ 108

Interesting graph language; I want to think about that awhile; the last time I looked at visual languages I concluded they were cute, but didn't scale for sh*t; I'd like to find out I'm no longer correct. One thing I notice right off is that space is used to display relationships that grow out of metaphors for space (e.g, "between"), which makes a lot of sense.

Paula, albatross, and various others

Linking, threading, tagging, etc. are all ways to connect units together in meaningful collections, in some order that adds additional meaning. We've talked about how different people have different requirements from a user interface (people really think differently and you need to allow for that); I argue that the technology needs to provide mechanisms for relating items without enforcing how you look at them. So allow for threading but don't insist that following a thread is the only way to view the chain of items. For instance, I like that I can elide a subthread that I"m not interested from my screen so it doesn't interrupt the flow of the superthread; I hate the way LJ implements that, forcing to me to look at either only the subthread or the superthread.

albatross @ 110

There are several levels of complexity of user interface: the beginner level, the casual user level, and the expert level. These types of users are not distinguished by the amount of skill they have; the occasional user may be highly skilled and well-versed in the cognitive model of the interface but just doesn't use it often enough to warrant learning the "power user features". And the expert doesn't necessarily need a beginner interface that has more features. If you think of musical instruments you realize that a violin cannot be used by a beginner in anything like the same way as a virtuoso (which may be why the finest user interface scientist I know is also a skilled musician).

Owing to lack of imagination and short-term business thinking, most commercial user interfaces are beginner types, with little or no thought to how experts will use them. This sucks bigtime for the experts. One difference (not the only one) between beginners and experts is that beginners usually don't really know what's possible or what they will need when they become experts, so the interface is fixed to some set of features decided on by marketing or software engineering, not cognitive engineering. That might work if the expert and occasional users were given good tools with which to customize the interface. By this I most emphatically do not mean macro languages or keystroke recorders; they're just invitations to people who are experts in something other than engineering to get totally frustrated and throw their computers across the room.

#118 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 01:00 PM:

Bill Higgins @ 116... Speaking of Heinlein, have you ever seen 1953's Project Moon Base?

#119 ::: BurningTree ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 01:57 PM:

Serge, I would just like to say this: The company I work for has just automated crap, and I agree. We now have really fast crap. My job is essentially to smell out the crap before it rapidly hits the fan.

I would definately buy your t-shirt.

#120 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 02:36 PM:

The one thing you can't do, which I really wish you could, is drag a tab from one window to another. (I use separate windows as a second-order sort-blogs in one, web comics in another, Making Light in one of its very own.)

Sure you can.

  1. Click-and-hold on the tab you want to move.
  2. Drag it down to the Taskbar icon of the window you want to move it to. DON'T DROP YOUR DRAG - keep holding that mouse button down.
  3. Wait, hovering over that Taskbar icon, until that window comes into focus.
  4. Now drag your mouse up to the tabbing area and let go. You now have copied the tab to the new window.
  5. Now go back to the first window and close the tab, since you can't really move tabs, you can only copy them. (And if that's what you were lamenting, then consider this a hearty "Oh, nevermind" from me.

The thing I was complaining about recently was the way Firefox only ever Opens in New Tab at the end of the tabbing line, so that I'd have to go drag that tab back if I wanted it next to the tab that it came from. (Yay Firefox 2.0 and tab-dragging!) But then I discovered the Tab Mix Plus add-on and found the option that did just that. Now all I have to do is remember to disable that option for those few situations when I actually do want all tabs opening at the end of the line.

#121 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 02:41 PM:

The company I work for has just automated crap, and I agree. We now have really fast crap. My job is essentially to smell out the crap before it rapidly hits the fan.

Would that make your job description "Fastest nose in the West"?

#122 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 03:07 PM:

Burning Tree @ 119... I think it was the first Airplane movie that showed coprolith's trajectory intersecting with a ventilation device. No, it wasn't pretty.

#123 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 03:19 PM:

Bruce @74:
I think it would be possible to build an assistant that could learn priorities of particular links, feeds, whatever, and order the display of them to match. It could base priorities on interest, time since last viewing, relation to other links recently visited, etc.

My inner Luddite itches, and sings to me from Accelerando*.

Sometimes he isn't certain he's still human; too many threads of his consciousness seem to live outside his head, reporting back whenever they find something interesting. Sometimes he feels like a puppet, and that frightens him...

I find myself cringing away whenever I contemplate an agent that picks my reading for me, for a blend of reasons.

First off, I don't think I would feel enough in control of it. I would always wonder what unconsidered trifles it failed to gather up. I'd probably end up tinkering with it a lot, or second-guessing it by going to look for things it had missed. This would come, of course, at the expense of reading the stuff that it thought, rightly or wrongly, that I might like. That's a critical fail right there.

Secondly, do I trust its inputs? We live in a time of deep suspicion that our information sources are being tampered with. Too much filtration about what I "should" see makes me twitch. And it's not inconceivable that a tagging system could be subverted for commercial and political interests, burying bad stories or selling me v25gr5†.

Thirdly, I like a little randomness and unpredictability in my life. Agents reduce that. I am aware that this is directly contrary to my first point, but if wetware can't be inconsistent, what can?

And last, another Nepalese Rug moment. I think that we are already too Balkanized on the web. The various groups are becoming isolated in their little enclaves, where they can amplify their agreement and stereotype their absent rivals. An agent that recommends things I agree with, things I approve of, keeps me in my own enclave. I think that is a bad thing, both for me and for the web as a whole.

Maybe what I really need is something that makes things I've never liked sound interesting enough to check out. But that kind of coolhunting agent is not very plausible in the near future.

-----
* I am not obsessed with Charlie Stross. Honest.
† Multiply incremented v14gr4; it'll be all the rage in 2010

#124 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 04:07 PM:

albatross #104 certainly "the street" finds its way around region-bars, as Gibson might say. Nevertheless, I can get very upset at the necessity for situations like your example of the cricket-watcher, or my relative in the US who can't watch the Australian DVDs of our shows and movies because s/he is a very 'vanilla' person, not into tinkering, and unlikely to have a 'multi-region' DVD player.

At the moment, tho', I'm trying to not concentrate on so much of this, because of the current major health issues I'm dealing with, just made particularly piquant because my landlady has decided to evict me in ~60 days from my little flat so well-located near the hospital, transport and late-night shops. So I may not have much time or energy to comment here for a while. Yesterday was my first flat-inspection day, and it wasn't a cheering prospect.

#125 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 05:04 PM:

Serge @ 114: (C'mon, you know you wanna make the pun that logically follows.)

Aw..come on, have a heart, man. I'm a lung-time punster, and I have a gut feeling you are too.


always blurs out wherever guts are, or should be if there were guts

Yes, that's the part I don't care for. First of all, most of their shows use actors in place of cadavers (just look closely at those "dead" people -- they're pink, not cadaver white); secondly, there are other shows on the same network that show way more guts -- of living people in the emergency room -- and they blur out only the naughty bits. Once you've seen a mangled human body, what's going to bother you? A dead body? It's very strange.

The good part is watching Dr. Garavaglia communicate to people what happened and what her diagnosis is. Her bedside manner is excellent. One of the things I watch on the other shows is how the surgeons and trauma specialists deal with the families of their patients. Many of them don't have a clue how to go about communicating with non-medical people, and you can see it in their body language. Of course, some of the problem lies in the editing of the video footage; I'm sure the doctors could look a little better if we could see more of their conversations, but that's not the part the producers want.

Communication styles are critical not just online but in the face-to-face of medical and veterinary interactions. One of the reasons veterinarians tend to be ranked as more trustworthy than doctors is our ability to talk to people. I'm sure there are many more factors involved, but we tend to be seen as better communicators.

Speaking of Balkanization, that is one of the problems in medicine: the drive towards specialization leads to Balkanization of ideas and results. Veterinarians tend to be generalists, so we tend to cross over specialities and fields, and so on. Anyway, in the medical field, I think it ends up being a dis-service to the patient, because in difficult cases there might not be a primary in charge of the patient's overall care. Things can get overlooked; adverse drug interactions don't get prevented, and outmoded treatments don't get changed. They need some way to bring in other perspectives.

I've noticed this Balkanization trend in the online software programs, like Amazon.com.; I get recommendations based on what I've bought and they are either books that I already own, or books by authors I don't like -- there's no way to broaden their horizons. I have to come here and "listen" to what other people are reading in order to find new books and authors.

The metaphor that comes to mind is some sort of cross-pollination software, that would act like a bee and bring new ideas, concepts, threads, websites, etc. to my attention. One could use the tagging system to bring order out of chaos, and then re-randomize with the bee program. Something like that.

#126 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 06:50 PM:

abi @ 123

Well, I understand how you feel, and I sort of agree, but only partially. For one thing, we're stuck with having the machines do the work to some extent, like it or not. Unless you prefer to screen your own email for spam?

I'm not suggesting a tagging system for prioritization; I agree that's too easy for black hats to game. What I do suggest is a system that takes some explicit preferences: "I want to know about new email before you tell me about new RSS feeds, except for stuff from this list." Then it watches in what order you open email, websites, etc., and figures out your priorities from that. At all times it shows you not just what's next up in the priority list, but all the items currently waiting, up to some adjustable limit, so you can tell it where it's wrong. And there's no reason it couldn't throw in some randomization to keep things from getting monotonous.

There's a really nice description of such a system in David Brin's "Earth", published in the early '90s. In fact. many of my ideas on this subject came from a conversation between him and me on his blog a year or two ago. Another book that's well worth reading in this respect is The Network Nation* by Hiltz & Turoff**.

* That link will let you look at some of the contents of the book.
** Murray Turoff is one of the early developers of electronic discussion systems.

#127 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 07:36 PM:

heresiarch @91:
How is conversation more than mere content? I think failed content is content that fails to reward my attention. Conversation, I think, requires more: even in a conversation with fascinating content, it fails if it doesn't provoke response. Perhaps bad conversation is conversation that however fascinating, doesn't invite engagement.

There's already a lot of information on how we post, tied to the comments themselves. It can be analysed and correlated to human evaluations of quality and interest.

Let's take this thread as an example. At the time I'm writing this, there are 125 comments on the thread, from 47 different commenters, over a period of about 46 hours. Not counting the post that started this, we're at about 20,500 words.

Those numbers tell us something. We're averaging 2.6 comments per person, 2.7 comments an hour, and just under 165 words a comment. My gut tells me those are markers of a busy and verbose conversation around here, although I haven't done the analysis of other threads to back the assertion up. (We've had more posts per hour in recent conversations, but not with that kind of word count).

Digging deeper, we can then start looking at the behavior of individual commenters. How does it match or differ from their usual behavior?

Serge is the most prolific poster on the thread, with 18 comments, but most of his are well below the average word count. View All By on Serge shows that this is fairly characteristic of his posting style: short and frequent*.

Both Fragano and elise have posted comments with a high proportion of line breaks to words. Those are probably poems.

Paula Lieberman has posted several very long comments. Again, View All By shows that this is characteristic of her style, though she rarely posts as many (five) substantial comments in a given thread.

My postings here are not typical for me; they're longer than I generally do, and represent a higher proportion of the conversation than I have had of late.

Likewise, Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) is posting longer pieces than usual.

So are you, to a lesser extent.

So we know this is an active thread that has got some usually terse people to talk a lot. It's also spawned some poetry. Those may be, in our community, markers of a good conversation.

Over time, one could go further with the commenter analysis and determine that specific people tend to increase their average comment count in threads that are also considered, by either human raters or algorithms, to be particularly interesting. This would contrast with other posters who become more verbose in threads that are marked as particularly poor.

This is just off the top of my head metrics. We could do more by looking at patterns of citation ("heresiarch @91" or its variants) and repeated text, to see who is quoting whom, because a high level of quotation also probably denotes an interesting discussion. We might be able to establish whether the quotation is predominantly of one comment, or more widely distributed, which will tell us whether the conversation is balanced, or is being carried by one person. (We can also check inward quotation - is one person generally quoting or citing everyone else?)

None of that is about the content, but when you compare it to the baselines of a long-running community, it tells you a lot about what's going on. (It also assumes a lot more data processing and processor power than we use to run Making Light.)

(PS: I see Bruce has posted another comment while I was assembling this. All my numbers are therefore inaccurate. Cope.)
-----
* it means there are probably puns in the thread, but the software may not know that.

#128 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 08:26 PM:

abi @ 127... this is fairly characteristic of his posting style: short and frequent (..) it means there are probably puns in the thread

Curses! And there I was, trying not to pun. I blame Fragano and Ginger for the repeated temptations.

As for Heresiarch's question about how conversation can be more than mere content, isn't that like asking how music is more than the notes inside of it, or how the various instruments in an orchestra come together either as a rotten performance, or as something that takes to Heaven?

#129 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 08:41 PM:

Abi back @35 Is a good conversation really just one that fails to be bad?

I have a couple of serious questions* coming off this I'd like to answer, but haven't had the time and am too tired right now (and this goes for everything else too).

Mez @34 and continuing on the DVD/TV availability etc. - I can't imagine many taste-makers would choose to release say The Secret Service or Star Maidens and once or twice while watching them, I might have thought they had good reasons. But there are better reasons for making them available if people want them.

Bruce Cohen @126 in response to abi @123 - If I recall Earth correctly didn't one character have the screening program on their email have a randomisation factor that (in the case written about) let through some of their hate mail?

abi one more time @127 - I've deliberately not looked at my usual posting pattern before replying. I can't help feeling slightly self-concious about it, and want to second guess my posting characteristics.

And one final thought - most youtube comments on popular vidoes are noise or worse than noise, but some communities there manage to have conversations. More interesting from the point of view of this thread are videos where there's a lot of noise and some useful information being exchanged; I'm thinking as an example there was a song by a Brazilian band, and in between the "Best. Video. Ever." and "is this video a joke?" comments there's the story of how it was used by an Australian underwear company for adverts until someone translated the Brazilian street-slang Portugese and English and discovered it wasn't really appropriate. An agent that could have filtered out the noise would have let me look into this in half the time (and saved the person who asked 100 comments later "is this really a language? like Spanish?" from the condescending reply).

* and one silly one

#130 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 09:00 PM:

Serge @ 128: I think of your style as "pungent".

#131 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 09:50 PM:

Malthus: re links. That sounds like "Snap" and I hate it. I like to mouse over something, and look to the expansion of the link; in the bar below the window. Having that pop-up thing interupt my reading to show me something I don't want, can't read and which gives me, no functional information, bugs the hell out of me, and makes me less likely to go to the page in question... because they didn't give me a choice about seeing the page.

Magenta Griffith: I share that reserve. It's why I am of a mixed mind about not being able to disemvowel Lj comments to my blog. I don't have the filet knife, but rather a sledgehammer, when it comes to flensing the offensive. But I can count, more or less, that a posted comment is what it was (because changing it takes work, and will show a timestamp; if the edit was too much out of time, it will show).

heresiarch: I don't think you need OpenID. I think it could work with the system we've got here on Making Light: a 'nym and an email-address. I think for a lot of people, that's pretty consistent over every site they comment on or blog on. It wouldn't be quite as perfect as OpenID (so, is heresiarch on ML the same person as heresiarch514 on Pandagon? hmm), but the fact that you could do it now without persuading the whole internet to adopt a new standard (ha ha ha) really outweighs the cons.

I don't know that this is correct. It works at ML, because we value it. It's a standard we employ. I've seen people snipe at people who don't use a consistent nom de ML. But what of the person who wants to be disruptive? They will have no incentive to be consistent. The secondary issue is that openID, and the like, can't prevent someone from establish a nonce account to wreak havoc. If, and it's a big if the people who use the net decided to adopt a standard that one establishes a nom de net... well that would be as easy as getting them to adopt openID.

re nesting: I don't like it. It tends, in my experience, to lead to a higher threshold of entrance. If I'm invested in a conversation, and the divergence seems less interesting to me, I'll skip it (in a thread nesting environment). Come the point a piece of it resurfaces, and I discover I am interested in where it went... the amount of effort to get caught up means I have to be very interested; or I'll just sigh deeply, and move on.

Ginger: Many of them don't have a clue how to go about communicating with non-medical people,. I wonder if my understanding of medical issues is why so many doctors have been so easy for me to deal with (e.g. the dermatologist who was surprised that I knew what petichiae were... never mind I'd only learnt it a couple of months before, when I was one giant petichia from head to toe) As to balkanization, the best thing to happen to me in my dire times at Walter Reed was being assigned a med-student intern. As the attending changed, and the various teams came round, he was on top of all the things going on, checked in every day and was; in so many ways a blessing and a wonder. He and my nurse made it all not just bearable, but almost enjoyable.

Now, to some different bits of meat.

I've been looking at how community, or lack of it, happens at flickr. Mostly, it doesn't happen. Part of that seems to be a lack of willingness to say more than banal praises of photos.

That's strike one.

Strike two, the owners of the photos almost never respond to comments (part of this is related to the banal nature of the comments. What can one say to, "I really liked that," "This is a cool photo," etc.?).

In those attempts at community, the tools for all to see/take part are weak. I've put a couple of photos out for critique. It seems there are some people (who are trying to keep things active) who make almost all the critiques. Few others seem willing to speak up.

So things are slow, at best, and usually stagnant.

I don't know how to fix that. I'm trying to figure out how to give everyone a set of tools to talk about photography, but even that can only be done by example, and it requires that people decide it's worth doing.

That's the hurdle I've not yet figured how to leap.

#132 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 10:11 PM:

Terry @ 131: I wonder if my understanding of medical issues is why so many doctors have been so easy for me to deal with (e.g. the dermatologist who was surprised that I knew what petichiae were... never mind I'd only learnt it a couple of months before, when I was one giant petichia from head to toe) As to balkanization, the best thing to happen to me in my dire times at Walter Reed was being assigned a med-student intern. As the attending changed, and the various teams came round, he was on top of all the things going on, checked in every day and was; in so many ways a blessing and a wonder. He and my nurse made it all not just bearable, but almost enjoyable.

Yes, if you demonstrate the slightest bit of medical understanding, you are immediately accorded more "power", for lack of a better word. As soon as doctors (especially young and inexperienced ones) learn that I'm a veterinarian, they light up and talk to me instead of down at me.

A good nurse and a decent student/intern will make the difference to the patient. Nurses can translate for doctors, and traditionally this was part of their job. As they become understaffed and overworked, the PR part seems to fall by the wayside, which is a huge shame.

It doesn't really take all that much time to talk properly to a patient or the family. That time spent will result in much better patient compliance, and a reduction in malpractice suits. In fact, IIRC, the doctors who have the worst communication styles are generally the ones with the most legal troubles, in general. It doesn't matter that they are medically talented; if the patient doesn't have a good relationship with the doctor, it can end very badly.

#133 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 10:24 PM:

Ginger: Yes, that's sort of what I assumed, and if you'd asked me, I knew it. When I go to see a doctor, or am with someone seeing a doctor, I make a point of looking smart.

When Maia was bitten by the dog (stupid feeding error), I grabbed the book I was reading on Darwin, of the active books, because I figured that would help.

And it did.

That Maia was talking about the various exposed tissues, etc. helped too. The only thing he could have done to make it better would have been to give us one of the irrigation cups he used.

#134 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2008, 11:47 PM:

Ginger @ 130... Grumblegrumble... As a punishment, I should make you watch Star Maidens. (Neil Willcox... I remember that show. I unfortunately have a very good memory for very bad junk.)

#135 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 12:19 AM:

I HATE COMPUTERS!
[post eaten.. contents included ~AI community lacked attention/clue/interest that "end users" and "purchase authorities" wanted turnkey applications and bundled solutions products for non-developers, NOT lab toys for R&D people to play with... the AI R&D community was small and not growing and when the Cold War ended, the R&D bucks evaporated--and Suns were less expensive and more germane for developing applications for business and industry and government to purchase and -run-~ .....

I have wanted multimode UIs for years. The Amiga came closest, but Commodore management when it came to commercial reality and market, looked brilliant in comparison to Tek, less incompetent than Wang and AT&T and Xerox, and ;ost at sea compared to Microsoft.

It was NOT that anyone at Microsoft was a marketing genius, it was that the rest of the industry was of such surpassing ineptitude, arrogance, incompetence, etc., when it came to commercial realities and marketing and sales and partnerships and realizing who would buy what when and WHY.

Software developers are possibly the world's least cognizant people in any field when it comes to comprehension of what drives "end users" and purchase authorities regarding what they want to buy, what they settle for buying, where they buy, why they buy, features they like/hate/want/don't want/care/don't care about, and the quantities they buy in.

#136 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 02:12 AM:

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little @ 120: Oh, so you can! It doesn't work, however, if the other window only has one tab--the tab bar isn't there to drag the new page into. As long as you already have at least two tabs open, it works great. Thanks!

abi @ 123: "Maybe what I really need is something that makes things I've never liked sound interesting enough to check out. But that kind of coolhunting agent is not very plausible in the near future."

People keep saying that, and I keep thinking Fragano Ledgister.

Ginger @ 125: "Speaking of Balkanization, that is one of the problems in medicine: the drive towards specialization leads to Balkanization of ideas and results."

It's not just medicine, it's academia too. Arguably, it's even worse in academia--at least in medicine, there's such a thing as a general practitioner. In the academic world, people are judged almost entirely by their mastery of their increasingly narrowly-defined subject area: there's next to no value placed in broad generalization. Too much of academia is trapped within its own over-specialization.

Hmm, what? Me, a cross-disciplinarian trying to figure out where to go and what program to do for grad school? What ever makes you think that?

abi @ 127: That's an interesting way of looking at it, very empirical. I wonder if the correlations are strong enough, though.

Analogy!

Two people are looking at a pig rooting through the undergrowth in search of truffles. Both of them think to themselves, I want me some of them truffles! But I don't have the skills to get them as efficiently as the pigs can. One of them thinks, "Maybe I can learn to duplicate the pig's techniques." So she starts studying the pig's searching method, creating a frequency chart of where truffles are found, which trees are most likely to be near truffles, and so on.

The other person puts a harness on the pig.

The first, after many years of research, has a breakthrough, discovers a Unified Theory of Truffle Location, makes millions and marries well. In the meantime, though, the second eats a lot of truffles.

Terry Karney @ 131: "I don't know that this is correct. [A 'nym and e-mail address] works at ML, because we value it. It's a standard we employ. I've seen people snipe at people who don't use a consistent nom de ML. But what of the person who wants to be disruptive? They will have no incentive to be consistent."

Well, imagine someone decides to disrupt the system by using different aliases all over the web. "Mwa ha ha," they think. "Now no one will be able to track which things I think are neat!" What exactly does that accomplish? The network loses one (malicious) person's Neat Links. It's harldy a crippling blow. Far more dangerous would be someone posting faux comments under someone else's 'nym and email, but there's not much of a reason to believe that anyone would do that--it's possible now, and I've never even heard of it being a problem.

That's one of the advantages of running a network that's entirely niche--there's no super-popular A-list to strike against.*

*I don't know if an A-list wouldn't develop under the system I have in mind, but it seems like even if it did it wouldn't be as dominant as A-list blogs.

#137 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 02:54 AM:

heresiarch: Actually, in some of the blogs I read, there is a fair bit of people spoofing other's noms' de blog. A regular can usually suss it out, but if you don't know the players, it can be damned hard to figure out; esp. when the joke is subtle... a mere exageration of someone's normal position, to a more radical interpretation.

#138 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 03:06 AM:

Paula @ 135

While I have to agree on the general cluelessness of software engineers in general with respect to what people want and need*, I must disagree that the specific incidents we've been talking about were the engineers' doing. I've been either involved with or right next door to a number of these debacles, at least 4 at Tektronix, 2 at Intel (although they, years later, recouped one of them), and a couple at smaller companies; in all of those cases the failure was in marketing not being aware of what the product was, not having enough imagination to see that it might be useful, or not being interested because it wasn't orthodox enough(!).

An example: the Intel 432 processor**. A lot of very good and very visionary engineers worked on that project; some of them have done really impressive things since. In fact, the technical leader of that project is now Intel's Chief Scientist.*** What they did was to design an operating system and a programming language from the ground up for parallel processing, then design a computer to run it as efficiently as possible for the technology they had. So the marketing folks wrote a benchmark to show its performance that compared their design's least efficient operations against a highly efficient single processor design in a single-threaded program. When that got them a horselaugh from the rest of the industry they decided to sell it as an Ada processor. Big market, right? *irony off*

* but in specific disagree; I know some engineers who are very good at that, and have produced products that fit well to people's needs.
** I know, you never heard of it. That's the point. And the project was shut down completely 25 years ago, so it's not surprising that it's unknown.
*** And you can see some of the technical ideas he and his team came up with in the 70s finally getting into Intel products.

#139 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 04:28 AM:

abi at#123 writes:

> And last, another Nepalese Rug moment. I think that we are already too Balkanized on the web. [... snip, but strongly agreed ...]

One of the little gems in Neal Stephenson's _Diamond Age_ - in the Neo Victorian culture, the proles get to read the perfectly personalised newspaper that what I'll call the Wired Magazine Types go on about - but the closer you get to the apex of the power structure, the more you receive the same newsfeed that everyone else in your social class does - because social cohesion and outside knowledge *count*.

#140 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 04:56 AM:

Bill@116: Thanks! I went and bought the Campbell letters...cost $15. That's more than I paid for the book of Campbell's letters, many years ago, but I suspect it'll be worth the price.

#141 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 07:25 AM:

heresiarch @ 136... But what happens to the harness user when the pig dies?

#142 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 07:35 AM:

Bruce @138: the zero'th law of software development says that what the users tell you they want bears only a stochastic relationship to what they actually need. (But they'll still blame you for getting it wrong when you deliver precisely what they asked for.) As a corollary: the users' idea of a neat extra feature that will be easy to implement is usually anything but [easy], while the stuff that will turn their job into a snap is probably a five-minute hack but looks so difficult -- to them -- that they won't even bother asking for it.

Oh, and for purposes of this law, folks in marketing are merely a particularly clueless subset of the category "user".

(Cynical, moi?)

Steve @139: the whole point of Google -- the original page-rank algorithm that made google's results useful, back in the late 90s -- was that it tracked inbound links, and thus, human interest in a web page, rather than other criteria (size, number of times a token appears, etcetera). In other words, it put a harness on the pig. Then sly truffle thieves came along and substituted a cyber-pig to drag the harness to truffle-less trees; that's what comment spammers are doing.

#143 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 07:46 AM:

Yori: "That is a User, Dumont. He came here to help us. Tron believed in him."
Dumont: "If the Users can no longer help us, we're lost."

#144 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 08:17 AM:

Serge: that movie is so charmingly dated! From the era when everyone in the media biz knew computers were the big coming thing, but not many people had actually seen one.

(And judging by the way computers get presented in film to this day, Planet Hollywood is still running on punched cards and OS/360.)

#145 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 08:39 AM:

Charlie Stross @ 144... that movie is so charmingly dated!

It is indeed. It's interesting to go back to some movies where things seemed cutting-edge back then and today not so much. In 1982's Brainstorm, Christopher Walken hacked into a computer by fitting a phone set into a suitcase-sized modem.

Punched cards and OS/360... That brings back strange memories of the way things were when I entered the market place. Ah, the spilled card decks... Ah, turning in that deck card and having to wait until the next morning to find that the pogram had failed because of a comma in the wrong place... As for Hollywood's current perception, I don't know if it's quite that bad, but computers have now become a very convenient deus ex machina where users can navigate thru complex GUIs without ever touching a mouse. (I guess hearing click-click-clack-clack-thump sounds more dramatic than a single click.)

#146 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 08:51 AM:

heresiarch @136: Far more dangerous would be someone posting faux comments under someone else's 'nym and email, but there's not much of a reason to believe that anyone would do that--it's possible now, and I've never even heard of it being a problem.

I recall seeing a post by Neil Gaiman in a thread on ML, stating that an earlier posting by 'Neil Gaiman' on the same thread was not himself, but someone posting under his name (actually, all he said in effect was 'that wasn't me'; someone posting under his name was implied).

#147 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 09:03 AM:

143, 144: A friend got me 'The Making of TRON' book (don't think that was its actual title, but close enough) for Christmas the year the movie had come out. The actor who played Dumont (and also played the computer genius who started the tech company in his garage and who was working on the digitization/teleportation technique) had about zero interest in computers; though he could recall how everyone had been excited about radio.

#148 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 09:06 AM:

Charlie Stross at #142 writes:

> Steve @139: the whole point of Google -- the original page-rank algorithm that made google's results useful, back in the late 90s -- was that it tracked inbound links, and thus, human interest in a web page, rather than other criteria (size, number of times a token appears, etcetera). In other words, it put a harness on the pig. Then sly truffle thieves came along and substituted a cyber-pig to drag the harness to truffle-less trees; that's what comment spammers are doing.

Quite so. Pagerank is a beautiful idea and it really works, as long as human nature is not allowed to intervene. Sadly that seems to be the way of ranking systems, though it is possible to give them an immune system of sorts.

#149 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 09:55 AM:

Rob Rusick @ 147... I guess it's not that surprising that an old-time actor would have had little interest in computers in 1980. They hadn't really started making headways into everyday activities. Now, well, they're devices that are a normal part of life and people wouldn't be interested in them (not in the sense that we use the word) any more than they'd be interested in an egg-beater.

(By the way, did you notice that two actors from Babylon 5 also were in Tron?)

#150 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 10:27 AM:

abi (127): So we know this is an active thread that has got some usually terse people to talk a lot. It's also spawned some poetry. Those may be, in our community, markers of a good conversation.

I agree. But it's important to note that they are not the only such markers. That is, threads that don't match those characteristics are not (necessarily) bad, or less good, just differently good. The other thread you link to (This can't be good for one's soul) is a perfect example. That's a wonderful sequence, and if we abandoned such threads in pursuit of the long, chewy, wonderful ones like this, ML would be much the poorer.

#151 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 10:42 AM:

Mary Ailen @ 150... if we abandoned such threads in pursuit of the long, chewy, wonderful ones like this

"Making Light threads... They're made with people!"

#152 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 10:52 AM:

Mary Aileen @150:
I agree with your entire comment. The playful, crazy threads are at least as important as the meaty intellectual threads on Making Light (to the extent that the two are separable, which is not always the case.)

Most of what I am thinking about here, though, is the impulse to go back to comment threads for future reference. And although I love the swift byplay of parlor game and joke threads, I rarely return to them*.

I would look at this sort of algorithm as an input to a ranking scheme, rather than a method to exclude threads from result sets. Although, to be fair, any sufficiently low ranking is indistinguishable from exclusion.

-----
* the exception being the LOLcats thread, which I have referred people to, and reread, a number of times.

#153 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 10:56 AM:

Bill Higgins @80:
Coming in late with it, I want to thank you for this comment.

Of course it's nice to see that intellectual pack-rattery has real world value, but even more, I enjoyed the window you opened up on the relationship between the two men -- and on your investigation of it.

Thank you.

#154 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 11:02 AM:

Magenta Griffith @89:
I trust the integrity of ML because I trust the moderators.

It would definitely be useful, when searching historic threads in multiple blogs, to have some metric of moderator reliability (whether personal, calculated or harnessed pig).

This would both serve as an indicator of the reliability of the information stream and the quality of the conversation.

#155 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 11:09 AM:

Kevin Riggle @95:

Statistically improbable words/phrases...oooh, shiny! I will have to play with this.

Have you seen Reuters Calais? That looks like fun, but I would want to find out more about how they do it.

#156 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 11:14 AM:

Terry Karney @ 137 and Rob Rusik @ 146: Huh, I guess it happens more often than I thought. Still, I stick by my statement: it isn't a big enough problem to worry about.

Serge @ 141: "But what happens to the harness user when the pig dies?"

That's why you have lots of pigs.

#157 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 11:23 AM:

heresiarch @136:

abi @ 127: That's an interesting way of looking at it, very empirical. I wonder if the correlations are strong enough, though.

This is one of the ways I look at conversations on ML all the time, though I don't usually do numerical analysis on it. It feeds my gut feel of how the threads are going, which ones I want to watch, etc.

I love the trufflehunter analogy, but I don't think we need to choose. It's a big web, and there are people doing both. Besides, maybe the truffle analyst rather enjoys the thought process!

#158 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 11:37 AM:

heresiarch @ 156... True. The best approach would be a combo. The trufflehunters each take the approach that suits them best, and the community comes out a winner: while one person is taking the long-view approach by seeking the GUT, the harness user has a more immediate approach that feeds everybody, including the GUT seeker who, if he/she achieves success will have a new way to find the truffles should all the pigs die. Or should the porcines mutate into avians reluctant to be harnessed.

#159 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 11:41 AM:

abi @ 157: "I love the trufflehunter analogy, but I don't think we need to choose. It's a big web, and there are people doing both. Besides, maybe the truffle analyst rather enjoys the thought process!"

And I certainly hope people do both! Nothing good ever came of ignoring potential avenues of exploration. And, truth be told, I do think that the really neat, world-changing stuff's going to come out of analysis path. Natural language processing, to pick one example, isn't going to come from harnessing some piggies. On the other hand, to the extent the question is a pressing one--where am I going to find interesting links today--I think the harnessing method is emenently practical. You could do it with the tech we have available today.

(Not to mention that I think that such a network would be REALLY interesting to study. How many people tend to tag each other, versus a one-way connection? Do larger groups clump together, or is it pretty heterogeneous? Has an A-list formed? How dominant, precentage-wise, is it? How does it compare with, say, musical A-lists, or blog A-lists? How much link-gaming is going on, and how is it done? It'd be neat.)

#160 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 12:02 PM:

abi (152): Ah. But that's where more differences come in. I'm at least as likely--probably more so--to go back to, and enjoy, the playful, crazy threads as the long meaty ones.

I'm currently re-reading ML from the beginning, and about the only threads I skip, or skim, are the political ones.

As I said upthread somewhere, no one solution will fit everyone.

#161 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 12:07 PM:

Ginger @130:

It's comments like this that are giving me a growing impulse to call Serge "Fred".

#163 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 12:37 PM:

Category: Amusing double acts in history
Sub-category: Teams with one member named Ginger

#164 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 12:54 PM:

abi #155

I'm looking at the Calais page now... but anytime I see concatenated phrases such as "attaches rich semantic metadata to the content you submit" I feel Marketing Weasel Cooties Clouds!

"The metadata results are stored centrally and returned to you as industry-standard RDF constructs accompanied by a Globally Unique Identifier (GUID). Using the Calais GUID, any downstream consumer is able to retrieve this metadata via a simple call to Calais"

What's "RDF"? At first I misread it as "PDF" .....

"Augmenting Calais’ “top down” metadata generation capabilities is our “bottom-up” metadata transport platform"

SNARL What about CROSSLINKS?!!

http://opencalais.com/page/gallery

Where are the pictures?
Right now Calais is a developer-oriented web service - so there's no pretty eye candy available

Clue. Bucket. Bat.... "eyecandy" !== "pictures"

Even WRITTEN WORDS, at the bottom line, are -graphical- and -pictorial-!! MORONS!!!!

WTF don't mortals comprehend about tools that are qualitative and not text-snobbed? Yes, text tools are useful, but as Bruce noted above, there are way of organizing things that involve -spatial- organization, and somehow I do NOT think the most people grok connectivity via sets of tensor math equations and descriptions of normed complete spaces! (Turns out that the linear part is NOT requisite, my office mate at MITRE, Richard Graff, was working on nonlinear correspondents to Banach spaces. I have no idea what happened to him after he left MITRE and I left MITRE, years later I did notice that the MIT alumni society was looking for him.)

CODERS, snarl. "Eyecandy" includes gratuitous pictures of Pretty Faces, visual clutter that as ornament appeals to some and annoys others (I want the "visual clutter" on virtual desktops I'm working on to to be the 20-50 windows I have open arranged in ways that for ME are not clutter, but are for anyone who can't work with a messy desk, rather than ornate borders, background pictures, etc., unless I am specifically LOOKING at the ornaments as adornment and/or generating Pretty Graphics Images for the sake of Pretty Graphics Images or as content... I do draw block diagrams.. however, those are NOT "eyecandy," they are functional descriptions rendered in a visual input pictoral form, as opposed to described with text-no-images.

#165 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 12:59 PM:

abi @ 163... Duh.

#166 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 01:15 PM:

abi @ 161, 163: I laughed until the tears rolled down. Ah, Fred! er, Serge! Will you dance with me?
::waltzes away::

#167 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 01:24 PM:

Ginger @ 166... You don't want to, believe me. I am more likely to dance with the grace of Gilligan.

#168 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 01:31 PM:

Serge @ 167: I am more likely to dance with the grace of Gilligan.

..and you know how much Ginger liked Gilligan. ;-)

#169 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 01:36 PM:

Ginger... The sordid world of Gilligan's Island...

#170 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 01:40 PM:

Serge @ 169: Shh; here comes the Skipper.
(they fade into the underbrush)

#171 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 03:23 PM:

Ginger @ 170... they fade into the underbrush...

...where they find Mrs.Howell doing you-know-what with the Professor.

#172 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 04:04 PM:

Serge @ 172: (The Professor drops the nail polish with a guilty look and jumps to his feet.)
"It's just a mani-pedi!! It's not what you think!"

Mrs. Howell finishes her drink and sets it down on the ground beside her.
"Gilli-gan Dah-ling! Would you be a dear boy and get me another pitcher of these?" (she waves her hand in the general direction of the huts.)

Ginger (bats her eyelashes at Gilligan) "Oh, yes, Gilligan, would you? Please?"

Gilligan (head spinning) "OK, sure..!" (he runs off in the wrong direction)

#173 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 04:13 PM:

Ginger @ 132:

I suspect that part of why I do well with doctors is simply that I've had some Greek, and can thus at least pronounce the technical terms, which goes a way to seeming informed even when I'm not. I do also have a better-than-the-average-layperson grasp of the terminology, which is a factor--it shapes the questions I ask, for one thing--but I suspect that the same amount of information, and stumbling over the words, wouldn't get as much respect.

In the last years of my grandmother's life, her youngest daughter was the designated speaker-to-doctors, not just because she understood the medical stuff the best, but because "Dr. Bleyman" got a better reception than "Mrs. Rosenzweig" or "Mrs. Rosen." The degree is a Ph.D. in biology, but I suspect a doctorate in linguistics would have worked as well, because they weren't asking "what is your degree in?" they were reacting automatically to the term "Dr."

#174 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 04:33 PM:

My big problem with OpenID - assuming I understand it, which is by no means a given - is that there are times when it's desirable to be able to separate your activities, and I don't trust any outside authority to reliably judge such cases. It is convenient for me to spin off a couple of my hobby activities under a separate alias; for some of my friends (like transgendered people in transition, or gay people preparing to come out) it can be a matter of genuine safety. And the more serious the issue, the more likely it is to be a very personal one.

I think that stability of posting identity at a given place is highly desirable; I just don't see that the benefits from generalizing that outweigh the real hardships it can make.

Assuming, to repeat, I've got the idea right. If I haven't, go ahead and correct me - I've been making dumb mistakes this week and don't mind finding out this was another.

#175 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 04:34 PM:

Vicki @ 173: Yes, that automatic response to "Doctor" is very helpful. My mother has a PhD and is treated with respect by her doctors. In fact, she told me, when her cardiac surgeon realized that she had a PhD and could understand medical jargon (not that the two always go hand-in-hand) he immediately began to talk to her like a peer. Then again, this surgeon is exceptional in terms of his bedside manner, unlike many other surgeons in that same field.

A lot of medical jargon is based on Greek and Latin, so knowing even a bit of those languages gives you a step up. I learned Latin in high school, and it came in handy during vet school.

Sounds like more laypeople need medical translators -- or vice-versa. ;-)

#176 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 04:42 PM:

Bruce @ 174: I agree; in fact, I'll argue that in real life we go by at least a few aliases depending on the number of contexts we find ourselves in. My parents call me by a number of nicknames, my partner calls me by other nicknames, and my son calls me Ema; outside of the family I am known by my first name, or professionally as "Doctor". My coworkers who are not peers will shorten that to "Doc". It goes on and on -- I haven't even begun to list the names I've been known by online -- and it all depends on who I am talking to, where we are, and how I interact with them. Why should our online presences be limited to a single identity?

I suggest that we think of online identity as a base ID, with "masks" that we present in the various communities. Our styles are usually easy to identify and certain people have such distinctive styles that they cannot disguise themselves, but they could potentially mask themselves in various locations. (In this way trolls make themselves obvious, with their style or pattern of behavior.) What one "mask" cannot say, being constrained by the community rules, another mask could be free to discuss. And so on.

#177 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 06:22 PM:

abi @ 127

PS: I see Bruce has posted another comment while I was assembling this. All my numbers are therefore inaccurate. Cope.

There's a bit of exposition in Delany's "Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand", perhaps 3 or 4 paragraphs, part of which explains why, when the total human population of the Galaxy is on the order of hundreds of trillions, there's no way to tell what the exact number at any time is closer than a few billion; at any one time, perhaps a billion are in the process of being born or dying; in which split nanosecond do you count them in or out?

So, while there may in fact be such things as integers, there are situations where we can't perceive them at all.

#178 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 06:25 PM:

"The Harnessed Pig" sounds like a working class pub in a little town in the mushroom-harvesting part of the woods. I bet the landlord makes a really good bitter.

#179 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 07:00 PM:

Paula @ 164

Note: this isn't either irony or condescension. Read it as written; that's how it was meant.

You ought to be a little more tolerant of people who aren't gifted with the sort of spatial sense that we have; sure they're stuck just manipulating symbols and can't use the vast array of spatial metaphors humans have developed over the last 30,000 years, either kinesthetically or linguistically. but they do occasionally discover something that we wouldn't get because we don't think the way they do.

By my analysis, not all of the Calais website is marketing-speak; RDF is an XML-based notation for adding meta annotations to content. Of course, it's effectiveness is only as good as the tags you apply, and the tools you use to analyze and manipulate them, but it is an attempt to allow a single character stream to be read as either content, metacontent, or both at the same time.

As far as that eye-candy comment: well, I've become resigned to living in a world where a large number of otherwise very intelligent and able people think of cartoons when someone mentions graphics. They've been brainwashed that way by a mathematical orthodoxy (many of whom are long-gone from the scene), and it's going to be very difficult to deprogram them. The good news is that modern mathematics is letting go of that prejudice against using their eyes, and the other scientific and technical disciplines will follow.

#180 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 07:26 PM:

Bruce Baugh @174: Assuming /I/ understand OpenID correctly (never something to be taken for granted either), that /shouldn't/ be a problem. In the case where you want to spin off a new identity, you just set up a new account at an OpenID provider, eg. LiveJournal, which IIRC only asks for an e-mail address and doesn't verify personal details against what the government thinks. You can then use that new identity in some places and your original identity in others -- as long as there are guarantors like LiveJournal, OpenID is really more a form of guaranteed pseudonymity than strong identity, which is as it should be.

(So, yes, all the Shadow Unit characters on LJ have perfectly valid OpenIDs. :-)

#181 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 08:25 PM:

Bruce @ 178: I'll bet there's a good cider too. Pigs like apples. ;-)

#182 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 08:28 PM:

abi @155: I hadn't seen Calais before. That's interesting. I ran my post @95 through the Web interface at http://autotagger.opensynapse.net/ and was somewhat disappointed -- it pulled out the name Neil Gaiman and linked to his Wikipedia page, good; it pulled out the two URLs, good; and it pulled out "fickle algorithm" as an IndustryTerm(?) and tried to link it to Wikipedia, but the page doesn't appear to exist. It significantly did /not/ pull out "Amazon", nor any of the permutations I tried including "Amazon.com", which is odd since business names are the example they give on the home page, and I'd expected that to be well-supported. Certainly not damning, but disappointing. It's probably the kind of service that needs to reach a critical mass of metadata before it becomes truly useful, and it's just not there yet -- it suffers from the tagging problem of requiring uptake from users before becoming useful, rather than being useful as soon as it's implemented. And I agree that what I'd really like is more detail on the implementation details so it could be cloned on a smaller scale, customized site-by-site -- it would need some rework be particularly effective on blog comments, I think. (Possibly my comment was just too little signal to get good results. Running Neil Gaiman's latest blog post through gets somewhat better results -- the service appears to do rudimentary pronoun resolution -- but it's still obviously a work-in-progress. It's now choking on the text of this thread; not auspicious.)

Even when it does hit that critical mass of metadata, it seems to be more a tool for association -- letting people hop to other sites on tangents from the main discussion, or finding background information -- rather than a tool for tagging the topics of conversation. It doesn't seem to assign any rank to the importance of terms in the document, and it only recognizes the terms it knows about. Interpreting the results as the article's topics might suggest that my comment was about Neil Gaiman, when he was really only mentioned in passing.

Feh. Computers. When's that transcendental AI coming -- I want my blog posts competently indexed!

#183 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2008, 11:24 PM:

heresiarch @156: Perhaps it's not a big problem because right now, there's no profit in it, because right now there is no standard. If we had a system like OpenID as one, then (as with google) people would figure out a way to game it. Right now, the trolls have easy pickings, so they don't need (usually) to try to gain cachét by pretending to be someone else.


Bruce Baugh @174: I agree, and I don't see that OpenID requires that one have only one such ID. Continuity works well, and probably better. I defy the standard troll to walk in here and convice y'all that s/he is me, or abi, or diatryma, or any of the regulars. That's what continuity gets us, which OpenID (or any other sort of external verification system) can't. But I can't easily carry that continuity elsewhere. A system such as OpenID makes it, theoretically possible, to have that sort of continuity; across the web.

It need not be the same continuity. I have, or have had, a few personae. In those contexts I have continuity as well, it's just a different continuity.

#184 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2008, 01:33 AM:

Bruce #179

I was intellectually handicapped without realizing it because of the prejudice, which I internlized, that math had to be done purely with symbolic manipulation and graphical representations/models were uncouth....

I actually got D on a test in high school because bored with the plodding boring side-angle-side repetition for geometry or maybe trig proofs, I had read towards the end of the textbook where it used graphical methods with the x and y axes and numbers on them, and used a grahical method with what was essentially vector math but I didn't know that at the time and used a proof based on the 2d graph because it was more INTERESTING that Yet More of the Same Stuff... and the teacher wrote, "While this is legimate way of solving the problem, it's not the way I wanted it done" and gave me a D for my efforts....

Think outside the box or even notice there's a book and get out and poke around it at and get beaten up, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes physically, for the temerity of being unconvention and not being one of the flock of directed sheep.

H. P. Greenspan was teaching an applied math class I took, and said, "Using this method to solve this problem is cheating. But then, using any method to solve a problem is cheating. If it works, used it."

Rigorous symbols-only proofs may or may not be available to get something done that one is trying to model... and there are cases where 3 terms of an asymptotic series gives better results than ten terms of a Taylor series....

But my point is that the UIs that are in general use annoy me enormously, and I saw the start of stuff that was better--the Amiga gave the -user- lots of choices, and didn';t take anything away. NoteCards had all sorts of wonderful use-configurable metadata construction capabilities, and I thought that software was wonderful, and did end-to-end system architecture models with in of block diagrams with descriptions of what processing got down where, what all the nodes were, what the components were, and could trace connectitivy top down, bottom up, laterally, open selected link types, select by node types.... I can't get that functionality in generally visible software, an it irks me that something Xerox did in a beta more than 20 years ago, is mostly a footnote. Yes, it;'s available and supported, if one wants to buy $595 for a limited version, or $1295 with the full development environment. I don;t know if one still needs to be able to fix broken LISP code anymore if crashing from e.g. running out of memory--but it is not something one can find on store shelves or even online casually, one has to already KNOW about it and go hunting for it and be a supergeek to have clues....

Oh, the company I couldn't think of last night was IntelliCorp and it had a product called KEE which it migrated from Symbolics to Suns... I have no idea if either are around anymore. IntelliCorp was working on a LISP to C converted and then couln't make it work well enough to actually get it done and release it commercially....

#185 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2008, 01:55 AM:

Bruce #179 addendum

What I was really annoyed by about the Calais site, is that it's got a classic case of telling instead of showing--it's a developer-perspective-written-by-the-knowledgeable-to-the-knowledgeabe.

Instead of giving concrete examples of applications or describing the sorts of applications it has and how it facilitates them, it talks about lowlevel programmer focus stuff.

There is an entire industry, industrial controls, which the engineers can invent all sorts of things, PROVIDED someone gives them a details, complete specifition for them to invent a part to meet the spec. Give them a blank sheet of paper, and they'll sit there staring off into space. "What are your sales going to be next year for digital bus sensors and actuators?" I asked VPs and Directors of Marketing, most of whom were paying several thousand $$ to subscribe to the study and get the report. "I can't answer than, next year hasn't happened yet and anything I tell you is going to be wrong," was the most common response. Another was boiled down to the essentials, "We will make whatever products in whatever quantity a customer who comes knocking on our door with a spec gives us money to make." They were COMPLETELY, utterly completely, reactive, and were unable to project anything forward without someone else giving them a spec or at least guidelines. I had to say, literally, and repeatedly to executive after executive,
"You're an engineer, aren't you?"
Response "Yes."
Me "You're also the [VP or Director] of Marketing.
Response: "Yes."
Me: "Take off your Engineering hat and put on your Marketing hat. Make an engineer unhappy, take a guess!" I'd continue on with, something like "Whatever you tell me I'm rolling in what what everyone else is telling me and I'll generate forecasts from that... your information being off isn't a problem, I'm averaging the responses."

That almost always worked, it got them off the hook and allayed their fears that they would be giving me bad data for future stuff that they weren't willing to project their own sales for...

But basically, they are examples of people for whom pictures and detailed specs for something that doesn't exist in reality yet, are necessary for them to "believe" in and to create productsion based on.

#186 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2008, 07:57 AM:

Paula Lieberman @184: ... and the teacher wrote, "While this is legimate way of solving the problem, it's not the way I wanted it done" and gave me a D for my efforts....

In the 70s, my high school physics teacher showed the class an article that had been printed in one of the educational journals. A test had been given, with the question "Given a barometer, show how you could determine the height of a building". Apparently, in the context of the lessons, a particular answer was expected. The student gave a different answer; one which would have solved the problem (determine the height of the building), but since it wasn't the expected answer, he was not credited for it. He protested, and there was some sort of meeting where it was decided he could re-do the question. He came up with 10 more answers; all correct, but still not the answer they were looking for. One of his answers was to drop the barometer off the top of the building and note the time it took for it to hit the ground. Another involved attaching the barometer to a rope, swinging it over his head in a circle, and from timing the revolutions he could deduce the height (knowing the gravitational constant, IIRC). Afterwards, one of the teachers asked him if he knew the answer they were looking for; he replied that he did... and that he had other answers in reserve that he didn't offer: such as, approach the superintendent of the building, and say "I have this fine barometer, which I will give to you if you tell me how tall this building is".

Saturday Night Live adapted this story: the screen showed a game of pong, while the audio was two students discussing the test they had just taken (what did you say for that question about the barometer and the building?) As one enumerates all of the possible and increasingly bizarre potential answers, the other is dumbstruck (you see this as his pong paddle comes to a halt, and he misses the returns).

#187 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2008, 10:03 AM:

Paula @ 85

Instead of giving concrete examples of applications or describing the sorts of applications it has and how it facilitates them, it talks about lowlevel programmer focus stuff.

Now on this one I'll join you on the barricades, ready to kill the Fascists and march on the capitol - oop, wrong revolution. But I agree completely with you, that engineering in general and software engineering in particular is way too literal, and way too timid in its (their) thinking. It's so much easier and safer to deal myopically with low-level detail than it is to use wide-angle vision to look at the entire scope of a problem, with all its hair and warts. Most teachers make a point that studying the really hard problems is a bad idea, because you won't solve enough problems to get a reputation as a problem solver. Now there's some truth in that, but it also promulgates the attitude that the hard problems are not interesting and not worth studying, which is hogwash.

I've lived through at least 3 paradigm shifts in the computer field, and watched several in other fields I'm interested in following, and I have yet to see anyone of the rank and file, not the paradigm shifters themselves, acknowledge that there is inevitably going to be yet another shift after the last one they've finally managed to accept.

The thing that brought me back to math was discovering some books by a guy at UCSD who was studying the global behavior of nonlinear dynamics in low-dimensional systems; what we call chaos theory today (this was in the early '70s). The books consisted almost completely of computer-generated schematics (not straight plots, but annotated and schematized drawings generated by computer and modified by hand) of the flow of systems with stereotypical attractive basins. There were just enough symols to describe what the drawings represented; other than that it was all graphics. And it made perfect sense, and as long as you knew what the drawings were you could show that they exhaustively enumerated all the possibilities for that that dimension (mostly single-valued functions of three variables, so a four-dimensional space).

For another 20 years critics and reviewers carped at this sort of work, calling it "redundant", and "lacking in rigor". Then the dinosaurs died off*, and the new generation realized that none of the symbolic tools they were using could touch the problems these graphics solved, let alone the new problems they raised.

The same thing keeps happening in every field, because of snobbery (I am smart enough to use the tools that are needed to study this field; tools can't be simpler because then other, lesser mortals could study it) and fear (if new tools that can go further than mine come along I'll be obsolete, because I can't learn a new set of tools ; it's too hard, I'm not a grad student anymore).

Like I said, I get irritated at the bozos, but I feel sorry for them too. They'll never know again the excitement of that first discovery of the world that opens up to you when you learn a new paradigm. Once was all they can handle. I would say, being who I am, that they've lost the sensawunda.

* All that is necessary for a theory to be accepted is for the previous generation of scientists to die off.

#188 ::: R. M. Koske ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2008, 04:59 PM:

It occurs to me that one thing that I often want on comment threads is the ability to not-view some of the posts. They don't have to go away, or even be really hidden, I just want to not see the content.

What I'm thinking of would be a situation where I could select from a list of posters in a thread, and anyone selected has a placeholder where I could see the name, timestamp and subject of the post (if applicable) but it is collapsed so I don't see any of the content.

So if I were in a snit and didn't want abi to take away my self-righteousness, I could select to not see her posts. I'd know she had posted, and I'd see the replies, but not her content.

I think you could even use cookies or login info or somesuch to make such a widget be site-global or a conversation-by-conversation. So I could turn off abi everywhere, but only turn of Serge when I got tired of puns.*

Maybe it could be expanded to also do a similar kill on keywords, so you could filter out knitting as well.

Whether this would improve conversation or kill it, I dunno. I just thought of it and haven't pondered the ramifications.

*I hope everyone can tell that I'm picking on those I consider to be inoffensive. I like your posts, both of you. And knitting, too.

#189 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2008, 09:17 PM:

heresiarch:

It doesn't work, however, if the other window only has one tab--the tab bar isn't there to drag the new page into. As long as you already have at least two tabs open, it works great. Thanks!

Glad to have helped! But it gets better:

Going back as far as Firefox 1.5 (I think) there is a checkbox option called "Always show tab bar." I always have that checked, if only because I hate the way the disappearing/reappearing tab bar makes my whole window jump up and down as I open and then clone a second tab.

In firefox 2, pull down the Tools menu, choose Options, and then choose Tabs. Check "Always show tab bar." Then, I suspect, you'll find you have a tab bar regardless of whether you have 2, 1, or 0 tabs open.

#190 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2008, 10:41 PM:

Donald Delny @#10: Yes, the community here shares lots of knowledge. I'm not convinced that archived message threads are the appropriate
format in which to preserve such knowledge.

Brooks Moses @#19: Agreed, spoken conversation is naturally ephemeral -- paper letters, not so much. Cyberspace stands someplace in between, but its also (potentially) more accessible than either. More on this below.

Clay Shirky via Lance Weber @#26: Amen! Computers do not have social intelligence. Most humans do, but nobody understands it well enough to automate it. And that's before considering that the group is dynamic, and may change its focus over time. (or, as per #31-32, the reader can change moods from day to day!)

Malthus @#28: Yeah, threading would be nice. So would autolinking references, but we'd probably want to settle on a syntax. I use the at-sign as well as the number sign, to differentiate from numbered items in the text.

Elise @#56: Gorgeous!

Paula Lieberman @#86: Are there any currently and readily available interfaces fulfilling your descriptions?

Brooks @#93: Good points... The display and formatting (including threading et al) definitely affects the rhythm and tone of a forum.

R.M. Koske @#188: I'd say that would be a bad thing. Having people ignoring each other sounds like it would seriously disrupt the conversation. (And ignoring moderators would be worse!)

-----------
And having caught up with the thread, it's late enough that most of my own thoughts will have to wait for tomorrow. Briefly:

"Archived conversation" really qualifies as a new form of literature. It makes a nice record of prior "events" (specifically, the social
interactions of the group), but almost by definition, it wasn't "meant" to be an data archive, and retrofitting it as such isn't
necessarily a good idea.

While such conversations can certainly "collect" useful information, the comment archive is not necessarily the right way to "save it for
the ages", no matter how well you index and tag it. This is exactly where we need human input, not mechanical processing! The "currently
standard" way to save useful information "properly", is for somebody to compile it into a distinct blog-post or other webpage. This will have its own name, URL, and other ways to find the information. (Naturally, the new post gets mentioned in, and trackbacked from, the comment thread.) What's wrong with that as a basic technique? (Aside from, somebody needs to exert effort?)

#191 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2008, 10:55 PM:

Bah, wrapping issues.... Why isn't "rewrap" a standard option in edit boxes?

#192 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 26, 2008, 01:43 AM:

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little @ 189: You are a treasure!

David Harmon @ 190: "While such conversations can certainly "collect" useful information, the comment archive is not necessarily the right way to "save it for the ages", no matter how well you index and tag it. This is exactly where we need human input, not mechanical processing! The "currently standard" way to save useful information "properly", is for somebody to compile it into a distinct blog-post or other webpage. This will have its own name, URL, and other ways to find the information. (Naturally, the new post gets mentioned in, and trackbacked from, the comment thread.) What's wrong with that as a basic technique?"

Putting up a summary as a blog post is a lossy compression, and I don't know what I'm going to want in the future well enough to predict how to compress it without losing potentially valuable data. I've gotta be able to search the raw data.

Actually, that's the problem in a nutshell: we aren't able to accurately predict what we're going to be looking for, and so we don't know how to index it usefully. I index this thread under "sturgeonslaw content conversations personalization" and in a year I'm trying to remember where I learned that neat tabbing trick.

#193 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: February 26, 2008, 06:06 AM:

Rob Rusick@186: There is in fact a text adventure game based on that story -- I've played it. (It's also a spoof of Andrew Plotkin's brilliant game Spider and Web.)

#194 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 26, 2008, 08:12 AM:

David Harmon @ 190

While such conversations can certainly "collect" useful information, the comment archive is not necessarily the right way to "save it for
the ages", no matter how well you index and tag it. This is exactly where we need human input, not mechanical processing! The "currently
standard" way to save useful information "properly", is for somebody to compile it into a distinct blog-post or other webpage. This will have its own name, URL, and other ways to find the information.

One problem is that it requires that the person doing the "digesting", ao to speak, has to be able to be relatively neutral when doing the compilation. That is, the work has to make essentially no change in the overall tone, sense, and attribution of all incorporated messages and of the thread itself (a function of message order, for instance). A lot of converasations on the net generate debate about what a given poster meant; some disintegrate into argument over what everyone meant. It would be difficult for a given digester, or a even an experienced team, to get that right for entire threads most or all of the time. Automated assistance (not completely automated processes, note) might be able to improve that; it might at least provide sufficient appearance of improvement that the participants in a conversation would accept the result as a reasonable reflection of what they said.

Not that this is an easy problem to solve, of course, for either manual or assisted processes. And it's one of the nastier of that class of problems in this area where scale is an issue: handling it for 2n posts is more than twice as hard as for n posts, and fatigue is a factor for the digester at some point, beyond which the problem gets nearly infinitely difficult.

#195 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 26, 2008, 08:53 AM:

Paula #184: You're bringing back memories of high school algebra. There was a time where I missed a week of school from being sick, came back, and for the first time, needed to ask a question about something in my algebra book. So I asked, and in the next ten minutes or so, it became painfully obvious that the teacher didn't understand the subject at all, and was just copying stuff out of the teacher's manual onto the board. (She finally snapped "Well, you'll just have to figure it out yourself; you shouldn't have missed class.")

I think this is common. There are a lot more gigs for math teachers than there are people really talented at math, especially in the lower level classes. I remember having a parallel experience some years later, in college, when I tried to help a friend learn algebra. I suddenly realized that while I could effortlessly solve all the problems on his homework, I had never really thought about how to explain it, and hadn't thought to justify all the tricks I was doing. This wasn't all that helpful for him (but he did pass); it was very helpful for me to realize that I didn't really understand basic algebra, even though I had gotten good grades in it, until I could explain and reconstruct and justify the rules. And my wife says that one of her favorite moments in high school was when a math teacher showed them about ten ways to solve some problem, and she *got* it that it was really okay to solve the problem in any valid way.

If you only understand it well enough to remember how to work the problems without knowing why, you have a hard time evaluating different approaches to solving a problem. You know the way the book shows, but when someone takes another path to the answer, you may not be sure whether it's right or not.

#196 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 26, 2008, 09:05 AM:

Bruce #187: Yep. There's some weird property of humans that even if they've come to power or come of age on a wave of revolutionary change, they soon come to believe that the current world is eternal and unchanging. Part of that is structural--the natural path of advancement in most fields takes you further and further away from the technical side of things, and also makes you more and more dependent on the existing world--you essentially advance into management, grant-writing, money-raising, etc.

There's something unnatural in looking at the world and recognizing that in 20 years, it will be almost unrecognizeably different, in mostly unpredictable ways. Maybe SF helps with that, but I've been reading it since I was a kid, I'm a researcher in a fast-moving field (cryptography), and I still kind-of have to make myself correct for the assumption that the world when I retire will look more-or-less like the world I currently live in.

#197 ::: R. M. Koske ::: (view all by) ::: February 26, 2008, 03:20 PM:

#190, David Harmon -

You're right, of course. That kind of tool would make ignoring trolls and such easier, but it would also damage conversations too badly.

But I reserve the right to ignore abi anytime she makes me mad, moderator or not. She's such a maddening person, yanno.


#184, Paula & #195, albatross -
I had a similar "solve it the best way" situation in a trig class once. Naturally, I remember almost none of the details. The book expected you to use a complicated trigonometric calculation to get one of the numbers in a simple multiplication problem. It had to do with the circumference of a wheel and the distance traveled and the number of revolutions the wheel went through, I know that much. After a lot of trigonometric hoop-jumping, you could do a simple distance=circumference times #of revolutions calculation* and answer the question. This problem was difficult and took quite some time. The second problem of the set changed only one variable, in such a way that you didn't need the trig at all. All you had to do was take your hard-won number of revolutions result from the previous problem and the new circumference and do the multiplication.

There was one other person in class who noticed, and the blank expressions of the teacher and our classmates when we tried to explain the shortcut were kind of startling.


#196, albatross -

One of my great fears of "getting old" is getting narrowminded. My inability to stay abreast of popular music (or even find much to enjoy when I randomly flip to a station that caters to a younger demographic station) worries me a lot.

*Or something like that


#198 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 26, 2008, 04:34 PM:

albatross (195): When I was taking algebra, a friend of mine missed a lot of school, and I ended up tutoring her so she wouldn't have to repeat the class. On several different types of problems, I explained it the way that made sense to me, and she just stared blankly. It often took me several tries to find a way to explain it that made sense to her.

It was an eye-opening experience. Suddenly I really, viscerally understood that different people think differently and that no one method will work for everyone. (As this thread has amply demonstrated!)

#199 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2008, 10:45 AM:

R. M. Koske @ 197

Of course, sometimes it just goes the other way. There's a great story about John von Neumann at a cocktail party in Los Alamos, during the Manhattan Project, I think. Someone posed him one of those problems with a railroad locomotive and a flying animal, where you have to figure out the total distance the animal flies*. Of course there's a trick to the problem which allows you to use logic to solve it rather than calculus. It's said that von Neumann thought about the problem for a few seconds and then gave the correct answer. The person who'd posed the problem was surprised at his speed, and said, "You were very quick to find the trick solution, can you describe how you thought of it?" von Neumann replied, "Trick? I just did the brute-force integration of the equation."


* Sorry, the details have leaked out of my head in the years since I heard it.

#200 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2008, 06:57 PM:

Heresiarch @#192, Bruce Cohen @#194: Both your points are well-made, but I think they basically fall into the balance. The summary may be lossy, but the original thread is noisy! (I'm talking specifically about collected information within the thread, not the conversation itself, here.)

Another part of my qualms about archive conversations is that the archive itself can fail, as Bruce Schneier lately discusses.

If, say, the recipes from ML have been either indexed or copied at, say, a food blog, it obviously becomes easier to look up, say, Jim's Schadenfreude pie. or "gluten free" recipes.

If the recipes were copied, then a crash at ML would orphan but not destroy them. If they've only been indexed, then the ML crash makes the index (almost) useless. Either way, a crash at the food blog would be irrelevant to ML. So copying, rather than just indexing, makes stuff from ML not merely more compact and organized, but more durable.

#201 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2008, 11:19 PM:

David Harmon @ 200: "The summary may be lossy, but the original thread is noisy!"

Well, sure, but which parts are noise, and which are signal? Whenever you index anything, you're making judgements about which is which, and it's very possible that the person who ends up using your index is going to disagree. What's needed isn't any particular index per se, but rather a sort of meta-indexer, that can spontaneously generate indices tailored towards the exact thing you are interested in.

#202 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2008, 03:01 AM:

heresiarch @ 201

Not to put too fine a point on it, when you use terms like "noise" and "loss" you're talking about information theory. One of the fundamental principles of that theory is that it says nothing whatever about meaning. So it's perfectly reasonable to say that pure noise contains all possible information. But it rarely contains any meaning at all.

Meaning is relative to the use to which information is put, which is why the tools we're talking about can increase meaning, even if information is lost. That's why I haven't been a strong advocate of tagging, and when I have advocated it, I've insisted on open tag vocabularies: no new meaning can be distinguished in old information without new categories to distinguish it with.

#203 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2008, 09:12 AM:

Bruce Cohen (StM) @ 202: I don't think I understand enough of information theory to be sure that I'm answering your point, but I'll try my best.

I think you're being thrown off by my misuse of technical terms. I'm not talking about (what I think is) information theory as much as I'm talking about...meta-information theory, maybe. The problem I'm interested in is trying to tell the difference between information-that-is-relevant and information-that-is-irrelevant: that the data I'm working with is pure info to begin with is a given. Noise isn't categorically meaningless, only contingently so.

"Meaning is relative to the use to which information is put, which is why the tools we're talking about can increase meaning, even if information is lost."

I get that. But the potential meanings of a data set (conversation) are manifold, and collapsing the conversation towards one of those meanings will inevitably corrode the others. For example: how could you summarize this thread in such a way that it would satisfy both readers looking for puns and ones interested in ideas about internet archiving? It's impossible. Each potential use of the thread needs its own summary. Given that the amount of manual work that would take is mind-boggling, the question is, how to automate it?

#204 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2008, 09:15 AM:

I guess part of what I'm saying is that if "you" (any given reader) wants to "save the good stuff" from a conversation, they need to decide what parts are the "good stuff". Otherwise, they're reduced to simply browsing through the archive looking for half-forgotten ideas. Which is not a bad thing (who here doesn't use computers as an External Brain Pack?), but it depends as much upon the reader's memory as on the computer's storage or indexing. And as per my previous point, it also depends on the reliability of the archive in question.

In, say, 20 or 25 years, the current moderators of Making Light may well have moved onto other pursuits, perhaps including putrefaction. Will whoever's left holding the archive appreciate that they are custodians of recipes, first-aid tips, Internet history, and other data... for a dispersed community of perhaps hundreds of people around the world? Will they have the funding and dedication to maintain that trust? Or will they say "oh, it's just a bunch of 20-year-old chitchat, low-priority stuff"? How many of the now-elderly Fluorospherians will have taken the trouble to copy the archives onto a spare terabyte drive, and keep that intact across interstate moves, new careers, and toddlers with cheese sandwiches?

On the other hand, anybody who copied out the recipes in particular knows what they have -- they've got a bunch of recipes harvested from the first decade of the 21st Century, which will certainly be of interest to anyone looking for recipes. So they'll preserve that dataset, and by sharing it, help to preserve it even beyond their time. (Many of the oldest books I've seen in daily use have been recipe books....) That is how "the Internet's memory" works -- not by "permanent archives of everything", but by people storing and recopying stuff they were interested in.

#205 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2008, 02:12 AM:

[Friday... was traveling on Monday and Thursday, to/from the west coast, and predictably am far behind in reading ML]

Rob #186
Alternate answers to "how can you tell the height of a building with a barometer?" were a standard math/physics joke at MIT.

David #190
Paula Lieberman @#86: Are there any currently and readily available interfaces fulfilling your descriptions?

There aren't any that I'm aware of but then I stopped spending much effort looking a while ago. I got tired of trying to find exception to Greshlam's Law corollaries regarding User Interfaces and acceded ungracefully and ungratefully to Jobs Junk spawnage. Income matters....

heresiarch #203

What do you do with a broken lookup table
What do you do with confused metadata
What do you do with inconsistent definitions
Trying to categorize....

Post post another message
Post post another message
Post post another message
Parity's all broken!

=========

David #204

All alone at the end of the archive
When the last moderator gets bored,
What will become of the archive,
Will it get gored?

You know the topics always drifting
Can't seem to settle down
And that never would change,
Though some got quite upset
But the topics here lately,
They keep coming back
Keep coming back, and more.

So join in the thread now
And add a new theme,
Take it to the Web now
Take to the Web now,
Take to to the Web now
One more theme.

All alond



#206 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2008, 11:48 AM:

David Harmon: That's the problem of allmeans of storage. We have some pieces of plays from Euripides becuase a monk, in an Orthodox monestery decided he needed some stiffening for a book to bind.

I am afraid much of the poetry I wrote fifteen years ago is gone, because I misplaced the copies I printed, and the people to whom I gave it didn't value it enough to keep track of it as they moved.

I recently got some of it again, but the ones I really hoped for (not so much because they were inherently good, but because they were sonsabitches to write) seem to be among the lost.

There are people who who have kept bits and pieces for their own pleasure. They may be indexed to source, they may not. Who will look to my printed copies of some recipe, in my tattered belongings at my death, and go, "Oh, this is John Scalzi's Shadenfreude Pie, of which I've only seen passing reference?"

The archives are valuable in one way, and the objects in them another.

#207 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 10:48 AM:

I thought this post by Steph Zvan on How to Hijack a Thread might be a useful reference post for this discussion though it's very late to both parties and the effort I had to put into finding this end of things makes me wish I'd had time to build the 2007/2008 portions of the Making Light Index. Oh well, maybe this summer after the next deadline is past.

It also struck me as something Teresa might think appropriate for a particle. The same blogger has a more recent post in a similar vein here.

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