Connecting weblog conversations

Some standards matter…. As I’m more and more seeing my words appear excerpted on other people’s site ( Hi Mark!), I decided to go after another source for related reads: RSS feeds. To participate, you don’t need to use weblogging software that supports trackback or pingback, you simply have to update your templates to have a link to your RSS feed. [Sam Ruby]

Does this mean I don’t have to figure out how to do trackback/pingback in Radio? It’s been on my to do list (albeit very low on that list). Wouldn’t it be lovely to cross it off?

Technology vs. Magic

Like many, I’m fond of quoting Clarke’s 3rd Law that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, ” and, more recently, Benford’s corrollary, “any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.” But I’ve also been troubled by the willingness of most people to accept the magic as magic. I understand the attraction to a marketer to claim magical properties for their wares. It’s the willingness to settle for that explanation that bothers and confuses me.

I’m in the midst of reading The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress by Joel Mokyr. Mokyr is an economic historian at Northwestern who has written extensively on the connections between knowledge, technology, and economics. In a chapter on “Understanding Technological Progress,” he makes the following observation about the differences between technological and magical thinking that offers some insight into my dilemma:

It will not do to dismiss magic as irrational, because rationality is conditional on the information available, and without modern science it was impossible for people to know what worked and what did not. The important difference between technology and magic is not that technology works and magic does not. The difference that matters here is that magic does not control nature, it begs favors from it. Rather than exploiting regularities and natural laws, it seeks exceptions to them by taking advantage of an imaginary capriciousness of the universe. Moreover, technology, if it worked, worked for everyone, whereas magic was confined to qualified practitioners. The sorcerer’s apprentice had no access to his master’s powers. [Mokyr, p. 178]

There is a two-cultures divide here between those who accept magical explanations and those who want to take the black box apart. I run into it in three settings that offer somewhat differing perspectives.

First are the tool users in my immediate cicle of friends and family. They don’t really believe in magic; all they want to do is get on with their own work. Their curiosity is directed elsewhere. The incantations that make email go where it should or get the words from the screen onto the laser printer or the weblog are enough. Understanding how it works might, in some abstract way, be interesting but the practical value of such understanding is a mystery. The practical value lies not in making what I am doing now easier. It lies in making it easy for me to take my existing knowledge into new territory. If the universe is capricious, it is reasonable to expect that my incantations will be different on different days or different machines. If the universe is orderly (at least in some technological parts), I don’t need to learn special incantations. I can rely on orderliness to make educated guesses about what ought to work in the current circumstances.

Second, I run into situations in consulting where either I am the expert or I am working with someone who is there as the expert. One strategy, which I have been guilty of from time to time, is that of “consultant as wizard.” It’s a tempting strategy, especially in new and emerging areas. It’s also a strategy that many clients consciously or unconsciously encourage. Mokyr’s distinctions help me understand how to approach expertise in a more fruitful way. It is not about the content of what you do, it is about the attitude underlying the interaction. Do you believe that the material labeled “expertise” is, in principal, learnable and understandable. If so, then you are doing technology. If not, you are doing magic.

In a consulting project, I suspect that only one of the parties needs to adopt a technological perspective for things to work out. As long as either client or consultant approaches the work as potentially understandable, then it is. This still allows for the existence and value of expertise. There are many reasons why we can’t or shouldn’t be expert in all the things we need to be. But it does matter if we approach expertise as potentially acquirable (as “technology”) or whether we approach it as magic.

This leads to the final area I want to think about; technology vs. magic at a policy level. In this realm, magical thinking is more dangerous because it is harder to overcome from a single side. You cannot hope to untangle the issues around file-sharing networks or DMCA, for example, unless everyone deals with technology as technology and not magic. Ed Felten’s Freedom to Tinker weblog is the best counter-example I can think of. Felten starts with technology as technology and works to explain what is and is not possible from a technology perspective. But that only works for those who are willing to listen and to invest some time in learning. For those who choose to view technology as magic in these debates, pushback from those who view technology as technology (or engineering, I suppose) probably come across as petulant. When we say “I can’t”, they hear “I won’t.” While that might be a reasonable inference when dealing with adolescent children, it isn’t very helpful in a policy debate.

“Impossible” is a slippery word in policy debates or in debates at all for that matter. It’s actually a rhetorical attempt to stop the debate. Debaters generally ignore it or, better yet, look for the weakness in the underlying argument that the use of the word “impossible” is trying to conceal. This gets confusing because in certain technical settings, “impossible” means precisely that. Even the US Patent Office is smart enough to reject applications for perpetual motion devices without review because they violate the second law of thermodynamics. In these collisions between the rhetorical and technological uses of the word “impossible” you end up with lots of wishful thinking but little else. Again, Ed Felten has some excellent thoughts on this, in particular his comments about the “impossibility” of an almost general purpose computer.

Is there a solution to the problem of magical thinking? The current popularity of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings suggests it will be hard. Science fiction author, David Brin offers an excellent essay in Salon on this peculiar relationship we want to have with technology. For me, the day-to-day answer is twofold. One is to look for opportunities to reveal the more interesting reality behind the magic when I’m helping others use the technology. The other is to always try to connect the magic to the makers of magic by making sure that the people who create the tools get credit.

Dave Winer goes to Harvard

Dave Winer goes to Harvard.

Dave Winer’s job hunt was pretty short. This is great news for academia.[Sebastien Paquet]

[Seblogging News]

Let me add my congratulations to “Dave Winer” on his upcoming stint as a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. Plugging Dave into another network ought to lead to some interesting and useful outcomes. I certainly know that I’ve gotten a lot out of hooking into his network (“Scripting News”, “Userland”, “Radio”), however peripherally.

I’ll be particularly interested in seeing how Dave develops his thinking on organizational uses of blogging:

If a weblog is used by a workgroup to keep the members informed, and to connect with other workgroups; and if their feeds are aggregated to inform shareholders, management, regulators, and other interested parties, you might measure the money-making in the form of money saved, or shortcuts found, or new ideas discovered, or blind alleys averted. Weblogs have a place in business that’s as strong as their place in decentralizing news gathering and reporting. [DaveNet]

I hope once he gets to Cambridge that he makes time to take a short walk across the Charles River and pay a visit to the Harvard Business School.

Alien abduction dog tags

Alien abduction dog-tags for humans.  Dogtags for human would-be alien abductees. Parody? Mmmmmm….. could be:

Money back guarantee! Should you ever be abducted by aliens and not returned back to earth, you will be entitled to a full refund… ”

Link Discuss (Thanks, Dale!)
[Boing Boing Blog]

Personally I’m planning on being rescued by Mother Thing . She’ll know how to get me home.

I suppose I should download an electronic copy of Cory’s novel in case I get abducted before the copy I ordered from Amazon gets here.

Forward motion and self-organizing networks

Technicolor Blogmap.

An update to the Blogmap Project. Using the same Friendship links data from the Blog Tribe on Ryze, Valdis developed two new maps. The first map shows the Tribe’s network within Ryze with Tribe Members colored in magenta and non-members in blue. This differentiation makes clearer the size and linkages of the actual tribe.

Maps are great at revealing where you are. Combined with the whitepaper’s framework, it reveals that while the network has gained some strength through the centralized communication facilitated, it lacks redundancy and wider contribution. Recall that the community is only 2 months old and it is one without a specific organizing principle except the common interest of blogging, and one could say the progress has been fantastic, when measured by membership growth and linkage structures. But that image still disturbs me.

[Ross Mayfield’s Weblog]

More interesting data and analysis from Ross and Valdis. Ross expersses a bit of concern at his central positioning but none of this would be happening without his energy and commitment to the experiment. Something to remember in all this talk about networks and self-organizing systems.

There may not be a visible hierarchy but the energy still has to come from somewhere. Someone has to be the spark and put enough energy into the system for it to become self-sustaining and self-organizing. Here it’s started with Ross. He’s doing it in a way that is engaging the rest of us (witness his recent effort to promote a blog-buddy system at Ryze).

So, don’t just take a look at what Ross is up to, but get involved! Add to the forward motion .

Learning versus schooling

Beyond Couch Potatoes.

Beyond “Couch Potatoes”: From Consumers to Designers and Active Contributors by Gerhard Fischer

The fundamental challenge for computational media is to contribute to the invention and design of cultures in which humans can express themselves and engage in personally meaningful activities. Cultures are substantially defined by their media and tools for thinking, working, learning, and collaborating. New media change (1) the structure and contents of our interests; (2) the nature of our cognitive and collaborative tools; and, (3) the social environment in which thoughts originate and evolve, and mindsets develop.

Unfortunately, a large number of new media are designed from the perspective of seeing and treating humans primarily as consumers. In personally meaningful activities, the possibility for humans to be and to act as designers (in cases in which they desire to do so) should be accessible not only to a small group of “high-tech scribes,” but rather to all interested individuals and groups. While the core message of the article applies to cultures, mindsets, media, technologies, and educational systems in general, my examples are mostly drawn from computational media, and more specifically from human computer interaction as a particular domain. [Gerhard Fischer] [via David Carter-Tod]

Gerhard Fischer is associate director of the Center for Lifelong Learning and Design (L3D) at University of Colorado at Boulder. This group is doing very interesting projects. I have been following their publications since 1999. Fischer’s focus is on “computational support of self-directed learning”. If I remember correctly I came across Frontier and Manila because of a project that was carried out by the group of Gerhard Fischer. I think it was called DynaSites… or something like that. So, if I wanted to create a BlogTree for my Weblogs, I would have to put the Center for Lifelong Learning and Design (L3D) right on the top. [Sebastian Fiedler]

[Seblogging News]

Following the bread crumbs back to L3D, I started poking around. Looks like a great new resource.

In one of Fischer’s presentations I discovered the following bit of negative feedback from an anonymous student:

I will not ever take a course of this nature again in my undergraduate career, and I hope to find a more structured graduate program with an adviser that is more forthcoming. I will reinforce my strengths by continuing to study in the method that I have developed over the past 15 years. I will redirect my weaknesses by avoiding unstructured class environments.

First, kudos to Fischer for sharing both positive and negative reactions to his work. More importantly, however, I wanted to react to the assumptions reflected in this bit of anonymous complaint because it’s symptomatic of an important distinction between schools and learning that’s caused me trouble as I’ve increasingly focused on the latter.

The more I learn about learning the more I discover how little most school and formal teaching/training environments are organized to promote learning. This isn’t new news, of course (see John Taylor Gatto’s or Roger Schank’s work for particularly strong views against formal education environments, for example). On the other hand, this news isn’t especially widespread. The “average” citizen may care about good schools, but hasn’t thought very much about how schools and learning connect. When and if they do, they seem to end up asking for some idealized vision of what they think school was like when they were in it.

DIGRESSION: When I was at Diamond, I helped create the training function there. I worked with Roger Schank and also with Tim Gallwey of Inner Game fame. I had Tim present his work at one of our All Hands meetings and he asked the group of about 300 at the time to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being highest) on how expert they felt they were about learning. The group average was about 7, I gave myself a 4, and Tim rated himself a 3.

I try to think in terms of setting up conditions that will contribute to better learning. That often leads to doing things that don’t look much like conventional classes or lectures and may not look like I’m doing very much in the mix. In the short term, this leads to reactions like the ones Fischer reports above. If you do it right, however, and can stay with it, you do have people coming back to you later to thank you. On the other hand, it is a very high risk strategy in most environments. Far easier to give the customers what they think they want.

I’m not making claims that I have this all figured out yet. Tenure isn’t the answer because by the time you’ve worked the system to that point, you’re likely to have forgotten what’s wrong with the system. If you’re lucky you land in one of the handful of institutions that get it and support it. One of the wonderful things about the blogging world is how it helps connect you to a larger universe of folks who are more interested in learning than schooling.

Weblogs and comments

Flamers and Weblog Comments. Nick Denton: Comments and Communities. One day, everybody will have a weblog, and a place to comment, and indexing systems… [Dan Gillmor’s eJournal]

More from Denton:

…this is the way to deal with flamers: let them post on their own damn sites. And then let everyone else ignore them. Weblogs are a gigantic interlinked discussion forum, in which it’s trivially easy to route around idiots.

I’ve been mulling over whether to enable comments on this site for some time. I’ve always found discussion groups disappointing, not just because of these who feel compelled to flame, but also for the choppy nature of the interaction. I’ve been much happier with the periodic cross-blog conversations that I’ve participated in. For now, that means no comments here.

I’m open to being convinced otherwise. If you do have an opinion and you don’t have a weblog, feel free to drop me a line Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog..

Learning and Community

Article : Learning is a Community Experience : By …. Article : Learning is a Community Experience : By Adele Goldberg – “Perhaps it is obvious – you do not learn alone, but you do take responsibility for your own education. (14-pages, 206 KB PDF)
* Go to Learning is a Community Experience, published in the July/August 2002 edition of the Journal of Object Technology [SynapShots]

Adele was one of the creators of the Smalltalk programming language. She worked at Xerox PARC with Alan Kay and later became the CEO of ParcPlace Systems where she worked to commercialize object-oiented technologies. This article contains her reflections on introducing object-oriented technologies and thinking to the technology world. Lots of good material.

I was struck by this definition of an educated person:

We think that an educated person is one who knows a little about a lot, and a lot about some focused subject area – one who reads broadly so is conversant on many topics, but one who holds his or her tongue when the hard data is not there to back up the inclination of that tongue.

Wouldn’t the world be a nicer place if more of us took that advice to heart?

Some other excerpts:

learning on your own is preposterously hard given the quantity of new material regularly generated. Both filtering and selection techniques have to be taught so as to be able to focus without losing sight of the intellectually stimulating neighborhoods that surround any focus of attention.

Here is a small experiment to try when in a room with a group of 10-30 people.

Step 1. First, ask each individual to decide whether the group should consider the individual to be an expert in object technology. If you are an expert, then signal (by standing up) and remaining standing. (Note definition of “expert” vs proficient professional or virtuoso as defined by Peter Denning in the August 2001 issue of the CACM.)

Step 2. The non-experts, those who did not stand up, should find an expert to be physically near (they should physically leave their seats and move near the expert so as to be able to converse).

Step 3. Each non-experts should think about a question that relates to object technology, one whose answer the non-expert does not know and that is a reason why he or she is not to be considered an expert. Ask this question of the expert near you.

Step 4. If the expert was asked a question he or she could not answer, could the expert now designate himself or herself to be a non-expert and look for an expert who has the answer? After finding an answer, the individual can decide whether to stand up again as an expert.

An interesting outcome of this experiment is that, ultimately everyone designates him- or herself as a non-expert at some time in the process, with minor exception. And the exception is typically a developer who, although acknowledged to be an expert, can always find an unknown as a learning challenge but who, in the context of the experiment, was not stumped

Although, Goldberg’s focus is on object-oriented technology, her observations apply to learning and knowledge management issues in other settings as well.

Finally, I have to share one other comment from the article for those of us who have been afflicted with the programming bug at some point or other in our careers.

my colleague David Leibs likes to joke: programming is a personality disorder that you can test for

Getting your blog on the map

Metatags for Geographic Locations. GeoURL ICBM Address Server is a location-to-URL reverse directory. This will allow you to find URLs by their proximity to a given location. Find your neighbor’s blog, perhaps, or the web page of the restaurants near you.

Add yourself to the database.

For an example, check for sites near New York City and San Francisco. You can also get an RSS feed: see New York City RSS and San Francisco RSS (the RSS has an attached XSL stylesheet, so if your browser supports it, you will actually be able to see a reasonable rendering.)

Why is it called an “ICBM Address?” Old Usenet historical precedent [Smart Mobs]

Took me about 30 seconds to add myself to the database.