December 2008

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The first time our kid heard us talking about the Condé Nast Building — 4 Times Square — he thought we were talking about the “Candy Ass Building”. So that’s what we’ve been calling it, ever since.

Anyway, NowPublic has a story about cutbacks there. The main photo is one I took. See my comment there for more.

I’ve been shooting stars and planets the last few nights (see here and here), as the Moon passes by Mercury, Jupiter and Venus. It’s the kind of thing obsessives do, when they combine devotions to astronomy and photography. Anyway, I thought it would be fun to identify a few of the stars in the neighborhood Venus was visiting, when I found a star where none should be.

Take a look at the two photos above. The original one on the right is here. On that one I note names and other data for all the main stars in the shot other than the bright blue one near the middle. It’s not on any start chart I’ve consulted. Sooo… what is it?

My fantasy was a nova of some kind. But I doubt that’s it. Judging from the color alone, I’d say it’s a lens flare. Meanwhile it was fun doing detective work with The Kid.

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Earlier this month I blogged about something I’d like called a “Micki”: a wiki that works like an outliner. Now, thanks to mind-opening help from Dave, I’m looking to edit existing wikis with an outliner. That’s a great place to start. I’m writing this blog in an outliner. Why not a wiki?

MediaWiki is what we like to use at the Berkman Center. It’s what we use for ProjectVRM, and it’s what Wikipedia uses. And it has an API. This is good.

The first thing I want to do is edit pages. Wiki pages have outline characteristics. For example: section headings, subsections and smaller subsections. Each is a level — same as with outlining — and each is created by flanking the heading with larger numbers of equal signs:

  ==section heading==

  ===subsection heading===

  ====smaller subsection heading===

Lists also follow an outline mode, again with levels. As it explains here,

  * ”Unordered lists” are easy to do:
** Start every line with a star.
*** More stars indicate a deeper level.
*: Previous item continues.
** A new line
* in a list
marks the end of the list.

And…

  # ”Numbered lists” are:
## Very organized
## Easy to follow
#: Previous item continues
A new line marks the end of the list.
# New numbering starts with 1.

No, that wasn’t all too clear to me either, but what matters is that wikis do outlining. So it only makes sense that outliners can do wikis. Why not? That was Dave’s question for me, and I’m running with it.

There is another reason, in addition to my own personal wants and needs here. I think outlines are excellent ways to organize personal data stores — a subject of work and discussion at ProjectVRM.

Along those lines I had an interesting conversation with Brian Behlendorf yesterday, about how we manage receipts for online purchases. I think what most of us do is just search through old emails for keywords, or sort by moving receipts and other commercial correspondence to a dedicated mailbox.

I’d like to organize them in outline form. And re-organize them as well. By vendor. By date. By item purchased. By category. By how much I paid. The list can go on. If we come up with a standard or consistent way for vendors to report the data to us, so much the better. (That’s downstream, but it’s very much in the scope of our ambitions for VRM. We want to tell vendors how to help us in consistent ways, instead of different ways inside each of their silos.)

That’s a digression, but it’s relevant to the degree that outlining is a model for organizing the miscellaneous-yet-organizable nature of all the subects we care about more deeply than at a single level.

There’s something about the flat nature of wikis that serves to disorganize things. I think outlining can help with that. So let’s start inside individual pages and see what new we can do.

Back to the API. I see stuff here about searching, actions such as login and logout, doing queries for text, data, edits and site info, formatting output…

I don’t see anything here that looks like it welcomes editors. So here’s where the dumb questions start. Can you use text editors such as vi or emacs to edit wikis? Or are wikis so bound to their own editing system, with its own markup conventions, that they don’t welcome editors (including outliners, which I think of as a kind of editor, though that might be too limiting)? Dunno yet. Just starting here.

Mike Arrington says Bloggers Lose the Plot Over Twitter Search:

  Wow. Loic Le Meur asks for a simple feature on Twitter search – the ability to filter results by the number of followers that a user has to make sense of thousands of messages – and the blogosphere calls for his head.

  For the record, I agree with Loic. Being able to filter search results, if you choose, by the number of followers a user has makes sense. Without it, you have no way of knowing which voices are louder and making a bigger impact. It’s a way to make sense of a query when thousands or tens of thousands of results are returned.

  Of course, I’m pretty sure I can live without this feature, too. I’m failing to get too worked up over it. But the outpouring of emotion from bloggers is surprising me, and I thought I’d seen just about everything when it comes to blogging.

Jeff Jarvis says Attention + Influence do not equal Authority, and sources a thoughtful John Naughton post, where John sources “Steven Lukes’s wonderful book in which he argues that power can take three forms: 1. the ability to force you to do what you don’t want to do; 2. the ability to stop you doing something that you want to do; and 3. the ability to shape the way you think.” My post below also visits that third point. Another old post, We are all authors of each other, expands on it. The gist:

  I don’t think of my what I do here as production of “information” that others “consume”. Nor do I think of it as “one-to-many” or “many-to-many”. I thnk of it as writing that will hopefully inform readers.

  Informing is not the same as delivering information. Inform is derived from the verb to form. When you inform me, you form me. You enlarge that which makes me most human: what I know. I am, to some degree, authored by you.

  What we call “authority” is the right we give others to author us, to enlarge us.

  The human need to increase what we know, and to help each other do the same, is what the Net at its best is all about. Yeah, it’s about other things. But it needs to be respected as an accessory to our humanity.

I think the reason we get upset about What Twitter is Doing, or What Google Is Doing, is that we are too dependent on them.

The Net and the Web are environments that encourage and support both our independence and our interdependence. Single-source one-to-many forms of dependence, such as we have on Google and Twitter are old-skool scaffolds of dependency, within and around which we will build forms of infrastructure where we become ever more fully independent and interdependent — without BigCo or HotCo intermediation. They may be involved, but not as Absolute Necessities. Not as silos. Not as walled gardens we can’t leave.

Data portability is part of it. So is service portability. We will always have BigCos like Google and HotCos like Twitter, to help us out. They are necessary but insufficient members of the future infrastructure where we are free to take or leave any of them — while also appreciating what they do.

We aren’t there yet. How fast we progress depends on how much we embrace our need for independence.

We are all media now, right? That’s what we, the mediating, tell ourselves. (Or some of us, anyway.) But what if that’s not how we feel about it? What if the roles we play are not to pass along substances called “data” or “information” but rather to feed hungry minds? That’s different.

Michael Polanyi* calls that hunger our heuristic passions:

  Scientists — that is, creative scientists — spend their lives in trying to guess right. They are sustained and guided therein by their heuristic passoin. We call their work creative because it changes the world as we see it, by deepening our understanding of it. The change is irrevocable. A problem tat I have once solved can no longer puzzle me; I cannot guess what I already know. Having made a discovery, I shall never see the world again as before. My eyes have become different. I have made myself into a person seeing and thinking differently. I have crossed a gap, the heuristic gap which lies between problem and discovery.

Polanyi was a scientist before he took up philosophy. But his lesson applies to all of us who inform purposefully — rather than just mediate — because it recognizes natures of inquiry and influence that far exceed mediation alone. Even The Media aren’t just conduits. Newspapers and magazines have institutional imperatives of the same mind-enlarging sort.

Back in 2003 I wrote, “Blogging is about making and changing minds… about scaffolding new and better understandings of one subject or another”. Jay Rosen ran with that, adding that blogging “is an inconclusive act”.

It’s with this in mind that I read through John Bracken‘s rundown of 2008′s Most Influential Writing About Media. Lots of great stuff I missed, or would want to visit again.

Earlier this morning I answered a call for advice from a friend at a major newspaper. This led me to revisit the “ten helpful clues” I blogged in October 2006, and expanded slightly in March 2007. I’m not sure if this had any influence, but it’s encouraging to seeing nearly all ten suggestions followed, at least to some degree. (I knew the ice had truly thawed when the LA Times hired superblogger Tony Pierce, who now also tweets.)

Two that stand out as unfinished business: 8) Uncomplicate your websites, and 10) Publish Rivers of News. These two are becoming essential now that Apple will be selling iPhones through Wal-Mart. Nothing from a paper loads faster or says more in less time than a news river. (Here’s more from Dave, whose innovation it is.)

There are “mobile” versions from some papers. The Washington Post’s, for example, is well suited for mobiles, and may qualify as rivers. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the iPhone defaults to http://ww2.ajcmobile.com, which is a much better way to read the paper, even in a full-sized browser, than the paper’s main page, which has the curretly customary spread of clutter — especially advertising. (Although the AJC kindly puts the advertising below front page editorial, rather than crowding editorial within acres of advertising.) My old home-county paper, the Bergen Record, is NorthJersey.com online, and has an awful ad that peels down a corner of the front page to reveal a pitch for VW. This makes me dislike both the site and VW. Color me gone.

Anyway, I’m still encouraged. Progress is being made. And I have a feeling that the current economic downturn will make it move faster.

* Forgive me: as an undergrad philosophy major Polanyi was about all we studied — or that I remember, anyway. Classmates Stephen Lewis and Tom Brown stuck with the discipline and remember far more.

Bonus link.

Sez here Israeli Consulate to host Twitter Press Conference on Gaza. I learned that from Gilad Lotan‘s helpful compilation of perspectives at Global Voices on Israel’s Gaza Operation.

I love this video.

JD Lasica at Social Media has put up a list of front-line 2009 conferences.

For what it’s worth, I’ll be attending fewer of those kinds of conferences this next year, while I get more heads-down with and Linux Journal work. The current calendar includes several VRM-related conferences (plus the usual IIWs), Public Media ’09, Supernova, LinuxWorld, OSCON, Reboot and Lift. When VRM takes off, it will become a topic of other conferences as well — and that alone should push me past another 100,000 miles on United next year.

That’s actually small potatoes compared to what many other business travelers compile, especially ones who travel frequently across oceans. I flew to Europe four times last year, from Boston to London, Paris and Amsterdam (hubbing through Frankfurt, Zürich, Warsaw, Chicago and Washington). That seems like a lot, and it is; but I’m guessing that two trips from anywhere in the U.S. to anywhere in Asia would yield the same sum of miles, or more.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to make travel better with VRM: by providing passengers with the tools required to improve airline service. I might have more to say about that in the next few days, or after we get back to Boston from our very pleasant family vacation in Santa Barbara. (Which is just a  paradise right now.)

Bonus link to an old but still relevant Conor Cahill post, plus the comment I just appended to it (currently pending approval):

I realize this is an old thread, but it comes up at the top of a search for United Global Services, so it’s still current in that respect.

I’ve been 1K for three years running, and flew at least two full-fare business class flights overseas from the U.S. in 2008. I’m also rather publicly a United flier, with over a dozen thousand photos taken from the windows of United planes. (Plus thousands of photos tagged United, UAL and United Airlines.)

Before that I was a Premier or Executive Premier flier on United, going back to the early 90s.

But in the current economy no clients are funding business class flying for the near future, and my total miles with United are still a bit short of a million. So I figure if I reach GS, this will have to be the year for it. Otherwise, ain’t gonna happen.

By the way, my experience with United has included nothing bad in all the time I’ve been with them. My only persistent complaint is an odd one: I don’t want upgrades to business or first class if it’s not to a window seat. I’ve been offered several upgrades this past year to aisle seats and have turned them all down. (I accepted one that did go to a window seats.) One time this past year I was upgraded to an aisle seat and it annoyed me badly because the seat I gave up in economy had a windwow. Yet I still managed to shoot this set in a hurry while the woman with the window seat next to me was asleep.

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Dave naming Jay Rosen Blogger of the Year made me think of wine. As I said in a comment to Dave’s post, Jay is a sommelier of fine links. Especially in his tweets. They are always interesting, always helpful at driving a Larger Understanding of What Journalism Is At Its Best, and What Journalism Is Becoming.

Jay is also a helluva fine blogger.

The best blogs — to me, at least — are ones that enlarge your understanding of the subjects they visit. They are less about attracting visitors as they are about attracting interest — in subjects, rather than in themselves. They have high substance/vanity ratios. While some may make money from advertising, that’s not what they’re about.

They also challenge conventional wisdom and popular beliefs, including their own. The second sentence of Jay’s latest post starts with, “But I’ve since realized…” To grow is to change. Who wants to be who they were ten years ago, much less say what they said back then?

Anyway, I gotta go off and run more errands. Just wanted to pause in the midst and say amen to a good choice.

Merry Linksmas, everybody.

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But is it food?

That was what my wife asked about a nice gift that was also comprised of an unfamiliar substance in a circular tin container that had arrived at the house recently. Our kid still described the contents’ appearance as “Silly Putty with nuts in it.”

Tasted better than that. Pretty good, actually.

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