I’ll respect it when it ships

Smug Canadian, long rant about Dave and RSS: “This is the path to failure.”

[The Scobleizer Weblog]

Scoble finds a wonderful piece that offers new insight into what’s been going on in the recent RSS debate and in Dave Winer’s decision today to pull Scripting News offline (hopefully not for long – it’s now back).

One insight from Smug Canadian’s post:

Every debate about software always comes down to the same thing, and I find it fascinating that it mimics every fight I’ve ever seen in a meeting room between two or more programmers over a piece of software. You have programmers who have been around a while, who created something that works, who have seen users use software and who have seen failures. And you have the programmer across the table who has no “baggage” from having created that success and who thinks they can instantly improve on the whole deal, nearly always by starting over, and nearly always in a way they suggest.

And a bit further on,

It seems to me that if you want to be a success with XML, and more importantly with one of the few established XML standards in RSS, you need to ignore these people that keep trying to kneecap XML and RSS. The whole point of a “lingua franca” is not what that lingua looks like, it’s whether it works at all and whether anyone has used it. You gain advantage in an open webserver world by building on top of what is established, not by showing up a few years late and saying “it’s nice, but we can make it better.” You can’t, just like you can’t go back to 1992 and make HTML better.

“Lingua franca” triggerred it for me. Courtesy of GuruNet I grabbed the following definition:

lingua franca (l nggw fr ngk ) , an auxiliary language, generally of a hybrid and partially developed nature, that is employed over an extensive area by people speaking different and mutually unintelligible tongues in order to communicate with one another. Such a language frequently is used primarily for commercial purposes.

In other words, a language focused on the need to get stuff done now. A language that gets learned in the streets not in the classroom or the academy.

I studied Latin, Greek, and French for years. Sadly, I studied them all inside classrooms. Not a big deal for Latin and Greek, but a truly missed opportunity with French. The few times I tried to use my schoolboy French in the real world, I was absolutely crippled by the notion that I needed to say everything perfectly. One reason that kids learn languages so readily is that they really, really want that cookie up on the counter and they have yet to learn the strange idea that mistakes are bad. Success or failure is about whether they manage to get the cookie.

The tools I use all have warts. I don’t have the time or talent to build them myself. I’m old enough now that I no longer believe in the perfect tool, especially one that is coming Real Soon Now. But I will invest time in learning how to use tools that do exist. And I am willing to cope with the inevitable breakage. RSS and the blogging tools built over the last few years lowered barriers for me to the point where I could get useful stuff done with them, partly because I abandoned the myths perpetuated by software marketers about intuitive interfaces and other fairy tales.

I would hate to lose that and I am anxious. I fear that while engineers debate “edge cases” and argue over whose ego or IQ is bigger than another’s, I will see a hugely powerful set of ideas embodied in tools that work get gobbled up, watered down, and built into the products marketed by the BigCos. For an example of that process, compare the power of outlining tools such as ThinkTank and Grandview with what Microsoft calls an outliner as built into Microsoft Word. For an economy that depends on the quality of its thinking, that’s a dumbing down of ideas we can’t afford no matter how appealing it might appear from a marketing perspective.

The most pernicious thing about this process is how easy it is to suck engineers into this debate trap. FUD is a term that long predates the birth of Microsoft. It’s a strategy that’s been perfected by those with market leads to defend. Their interests are rarely my interests.

Navigating among all the conflicting demands of getting a design that works, converting it to code that ships, and having the patience to bootstrap a user base is hard. It deserves respect.

More gifts; if you share, you learn

Dropping Names, or, Who said that?.

Lilia Efimova picks up on something I too had read over at David Buchan‘s Thought?Horizon referring to a wonderful metafor Jim McGee used:

There’s an old story that I’ve heard described as a Russion proverb. It says that if each one of us takes care of sweeping the sidewalk in front of our own home, we won’t need streetsweepers. It’s worth thinking about how that might apply to the world of knowledge work, both on the level of being an individual knowledge worker yourself and on the level of helping make the other knowledge workers that surround you more effective.

As Lilia is Russian, and the mention of a Russian proverb triggers her curiousity, she starts a search for the story and comes up with Tolstoy as a source. (An act Jim McGee appreciates as a gift, which is a beautiful posting in itself)

In the comment section Jay Cross offers that he’s pretty sure it’s something Goethe wrote.

My first thought on reading the story was “that could be something written by Vondel“, one of the icons of Dutch literature. Sweeping the sidewalk in front of your house is a picture that reminds of the Golden Era which Simon Schama has written so eloquently and amusingly about in his “Embarassment of Riches“. It sounds so cliche-fittingly Dutch, you know, it just has to be by Vondel.

Now how come we try and attribute things that apparently have a familiar ring to it to icons of our cultural background or context? Is it to reinforce the importance of what we’re saying with names that carry authority? Or is it laziness, “let’s attribute it to someone who might have written anything, saves me the time to look it up”. Or even to get away with talking in clichés?

And do we bloggers do the same? If there is anything that pops up in your mind on the way we experience internet, do you think “ah, I probably read that over at David Weinberger‘s”? Are the A-listers our icons of blogospheric culture, whom we can attribute the stuff to we don’t want to fact-check too closely ourselves, but do want people to listen to? Are we building up the reputation of A-listers, to be able to off-load all that general stuff, so we can forget about it ourselves, as Gary L. Murphy suggested recently (and which is backed I think by how Daniel C. Dennett views the evolution of our minds)?

So who did write that story about sweeping the sidewalk in front of your house?

tolstoy.jpg vondel.gif naamloos.bmp
Tolstoy? Vondel? Goethe?

Will the real author please stand up? I bet it is indeed Tolstoy, I trust Lilia on her word. Or is that just my way of escaping fact-checking it myself?

[Ton’s Interdependent Thoughts]

A continuation of a little snowball I started rolling a few weeks back. Courtesy of Ton I learn still more new and interesting things about the little proverb I had picked up along the way.

This little blog-thread illustrates a couple of important points. First it’s a prime counter-example to offer to those who say knowledge management can’t work because people won’t share. Ton. David, Lilia, and I have never met face to face but they’ve become new colleagues in my worldwide network of people I trust. Sharing begets sharing. It only takes a few seeds planted to start the sharing. If you happen to be in an organization that has no one willing to take this kind of small risk, you’ve got deeper problems than I want to deal with.

I suspect that the real reason behind people raising the sharing myth is not organizational resistance. It’s fear of looking stupid; not in front of your peers, but in front of whoever taught your English class back in primary school. That gets to the second point this exchange illustrates. I didn’t worry about whether I had everything right when I posted the story that got this all started. I made the point I wanted to make and I fessed up to my ignorance at the same time. What I got in return for that tiny bit of risk was the opportunity to learn some neat new stuff and a couple of more strands linking me into the web that links people together. Seems like an awful big return for a tiny little risk.

A user tries to follow the Echos of the RSS debate

Echo: Stop the madness!.

Log Format Roadmap. There seems to be quite some excitement around Ram Ruby’s Roadmap. At first I was a little skeptical on the project (why not calling it YASF as in Yet Another Syndication Format?). After reading Tim Bray’s why we need a new format at all I think that it’s worth a try. Recent history tells us that the main divide was between people saying “It has to be powerful and thus not necessarily easy to understand, we will build tools to manage the complexity” and others saying “It has to be simple so that anybody will be able to hack new solutions using it without being an expert”. Both positions make sense. You don’t really need to understand how the jpeg format works to create cool images, but at the same time all of us learned html looking at other people’s pages, because it was relatively easy to understand. Ultimately it’s only a matter of a very little number of tools vendors, most of them small companies, agreeing on a new standard and changing the world. [Paolo Valdemarin: Paolo’s Weblog]

My first thoughts were “don’t we have enough format arguments as it is?”  I guess I am less skeptical now.  Maybe this is a chance to end the madness and get our collective shit together.

I like the sound of Echo as a name for the new format (much more than PIE).  I think a new name is essential to avoid getting into squabbles about RSS 1.5, 3.0, whatever…

I would prefer that it not use RDF unless that is absolutely necessary.  If there are advantages to having RDF available then Danny Ayers has already shown how this can be achieved.  On the other hand I would like to see some advantage taken of the work that has been done on topic maps, like XTM, XFML and ENT.

I’m also hopeful that Dave’s comment (I was a little suprised not to find a permalink) indicates that he will support the new format although I notice he has not added his name to the list of supporters.

[Curiouser and curiouser!]

Matt pulls together a good collection of posts on what’s been going on in trying to specify a format for weblog posts. The place I found the most usefuf starting point was Tim Bray’s explanation of why we need a new format at all. I found it nicely user oriented.

I depend on other people’s efforts to build the tools I use to do my work. When the engineering debates spill over into incompatibilties and inconsisentcies among the tools my life is harder. As one current example, I would like to subscribe to the RSS feed from the blog thought?horizon. I used to subscribe but it got upgraded to something that my current aggregator tool chokes on. I could send David Buchan an email and point out the problem. Or not.

As a user I don’t really care about the pissing contests that developers like to play. I don’t have the time or the patience to deal with them. I’ve been an early adopter of technology since before I knew what that was. I’m willing to tinker and I like to understand how things work. But I don’t like getting whipsawed. If Bill Gates and Microsoft do something annoying it’s usually time to BOGU. When it’s one of the little guys I’ll place one or two bets and then I get annoyed and then I go somewhere else. 

I want to find ways to support and encourage the innovations like weblogs and wikis that get built because some smart programmer has an itch they need to scratch. I think I get an edge from finding tools before the rest of the pack. And I like to help bring those tools to others who trust me. One way that I control my risk is to make sure that I can get my data in and out of formats that I have some reason to believe are reasonably standard and wide spread. Right now I mostly watch these arguments, worry a lot, and hope they’ll get resolved so I can get on with managing my information environment.

A present from Lilia in my aggregator

  Sweeping in front of your doors

David Buchan points to the quote by Jim McGee that I missed with my vacation:

There’s an old story that I’ve heard described as a Russion proverb. It says that if each one of us takes care of sweeping the sidewalk in front of our own home, we won’t need streetsweepers. It’s worth thinking about how that might apply to the world of knowledge work, both on the level of being an individual knowledge worker yourself and on the level of helping make the other knowledge workers that surround you more effective.

1. Great metaphor to use thinking about knowledge workers.

2. I was curious about Russian proverb as I can’t easily recall it (although it looked familiar). I did a search and found that this is a citation from Leo Tolstoy that is used in slightly different variants as a proverb (or may be he used the proverb in his writing?).

In original it looks like (my not perfect translation from Russian version):

Don’t ask others to do things you can do yourself. Let everyone sweep in front of his or her door. If each [of us] will do it, the whole street will be clean.


Here’s a wonderful illustration of what makes blogging so much fun and why aggregators are the only way to keep up with the flow. Lilia’s Mathemagenic is one of the blogs that have been in my subscription lists for months. She’s been away, but picks up on one of my posts from two weeks ago. She tracks down the story behind something I’ve used and enriches it for me in a way that I could never find on my own. And it all shows up in my aggregator for when I’m ready to look at it. I don’t have to remember to go check her site. I don’t risk missing the post because it scrolls off the front page into the archives. And, in its own right, Lilia’s post is a nice little self-referential example of the point that I was making originally.

With RSS and my aggregator working for me, these wonderful little gifts show up on a regular basis.

A welcome present from Unbound Spiral

RSS Feed Full Posts.

A couple of reminders recently to provide readers with what they really want.  RSS Feeds that contain the full post.  It’s now done – isn’t choice wonderful?  You can choose.  If you desire a full post rather than the excerpt, please change your subscription to:

Full Posts (XML) http://www.henshall.com/blog/index2.rdf 

Why is it that MT’s default setting is excerpts?

Makes me think about my own newreader.  I wish I could toggle between full and excerpts.  Even better scan quickly on excepts and then toggle to full posts.  Early on I tried AmphetaDesk and currently just use the Radio one.  Except I get posts that blow its formating from time to time.  Is there a newreader that can improve my experience?  Is there one I can install on my server? That is also easy to do?How does a group go collective newsreading?  A my, yours, ours subscription file? Are there tools mapping subscriptions in this format? 

[Unbound Spiral]

Of course, I updated my subscription list right away. I’ve been tracking Stuart’s excellent observations on the world of knowledge work for a while now. With full feeds it will be that much easier.

Stuart does raise some important points about some needed evolution in RSS feed readers. One tool that I have added to the mix that helps in my “Radio” environment is Mikel Maron’s MyRadio tool. It lets me do some of the things Stuart asks for.

RSS from the user’s side

really simple shit. I love “RSS”. I love my aggregator. I want the two to work in harmony for a long, long time. If I understand correctly, several blogtool vendors are making up their own versions of rss as they go along. Most of these new formats won’t work with my aggregator unless adaptations are made. This doesn’t make any sense to me, if you want your blogtools to become popular, wouldn’t you want the established base be able to read them? Reminds me of railway history, where newcomers developed incompatible ‘broad-gauge‘ trains and tracks. Go ahead and learn from this history, the outcome is as predictable. [Adam Curry: Adam Curry’s Weblog]

Like Adam, I consider myself a technology user, albeit one that is willing to pop the hood and poke at things myself rather than wait for the mechanic to arrive.  I too love RSS and my aggregator. They are the ‘secret sauce’ that gives me immense control over my information environment.

For example, I just checked, and I am currently subscribed to 236 news sources in “Radio”‘s aggregator. I rarely surf to these sites and don’t particularly care what stories look like in context. I get annoyed with sites that don’t provide a full RSS feed and insist on offering snippets or headlines only. Sites that provide no RSS feed essentially don’t exist for me. Selfish? Certainly. Shortsighted and apt to miss something of importance to me? Possibly, although I expect I’ll hear about it from one of my sources that does provide an RSS feed.

95% of my online information comes to me by way of my aggregator. For much of what I am interested in — business uses of information technology and knowledge management related topics — important stories hit my aggregator two to three weeks before they show up in conventional online sources.

I have been following the recent debates over variations in RSS formats in a bemused sort of way. Engineers are always convinced that they can do a better job than the next person. Have you ever browsed the parts bins in a hardware store? I suppose that when engineers were debating the merits of philips head, flat head, and torx screws it certainly mattered to them who did what when. I just want things to more or less work together.

I’m enough of a weekend tinkerer and early adopter that I will tolerate a certain amount of breakage from time to time. If I don’t have the right screwdriver I’m likely to just pound on things with a bigger hammer. But I do get annoyed when people try to invent new screws to sell their brand of screwdriver instead of trying to solve a real problem of connecting things.

One of the risks of choosing to be an early adopter is that I’ll end up picking tools that fail to pass the test of time. In that sense, standards do matter to me as protection against bad choices. The data that makes up what I’ve posted here since October of 2001 is in a format that protects me from the worst of those risks. And that does matter.

Scoble draws faulty analogies between Starbucks and Microsoft

Alex Hoffman writes his own answer to Eric Kidd: “he needs to change his focus away from technology, platforms and the development community, to real world end-users and their requirements.”

One last thought. My family just went out to dinner. On the way back we passed by our favorite coffee place. Named Victor’s. Hey, wait a minute. This is Redmond. Not far from Starbucks’ headquarters. In Eric’s world, Victor would never be allowed to sell coffee.

Every day Victor reminds me that someone can beat “the dominant corporation” and deliver a better product.

Think that Victor doesn’t have a chance? 25 years ago you probably were the one saying “no fast-food franchise has a chance against McDonalds.” But, look at the per-store sales of In-N-Out vs. McDonalds and you’ll see that In-N-Out is another example of a dominant player getting their lunch eaten.

[The Scobleizer Weblog]

The fundamental problem with this analogy and the several others that Scoble offers is that none of these other industries are subject to the network effects that software platforms are. Scoble’s argument is that other big, dominant, competitors proved vulnerable to competition so Microsoft is vulnerable too.

What he conveniently overlooks is the critical differences in the markets we are talking about. In software platforms, unlike markets for expensive coffee, it matters what other customers are doing. Imagine, if you will, a coffee market that was similar to the operating systems market. In that market, if I bought coffee at Victor’s I wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with anyone who bought coffee at Starbucks without permission from Starbucks. Or imagine a world where you had to get permission from the zoning board and Starbucks to open a coffee shop. Then you’re getting closer to the world that platform vendors like Microsoft get to play in.

So, Scoble, here’s a question for you. When you’re evangelizing Longhorn in days to come, will you be just talking about some whizbang new feature or might you mention in passing the eleventy gazillion users in the installed base?

Learning from others mistakes – this is broken

This Is Broken: Bad Design from Good Experience.. Ever notice design errors in everyday things? Send them in for a post-mortem to mark at goodexperience dot com. He’s cataloging them at This Is Broken. Learning from mistakes. [a klog apart]

One of the powers of imagination is that we have the opportunity to learn not just from our own mistakes, but also from the mistakes of others.  Repeating others’ mistakes is a singular waste of time. You don’t make progress unless you’re making new and interesting kinds of mistakes.

I’m reminded of a comment I first came across reading the proceedings of the 1968 NATO conference on software engineering (one of those classics in the field which I unfortunately gave away years ago, glad to see it is available on the web). Paraphrasing Newton’s remark that he had seen farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, software engineering had mostly been characterized by “standing on each others’ feet”.