Michal Migurski's notebook, listening post, and soapbox. Subscribe to this blog. Check out the rest of my site as well.

Dec 28, 2005 6:15pm


At Hill and Knowlton, we were in the habit of naming our various machines and hosts after satellites. I haven't worked there in over three years, but I've named my new Powerbook Kittinger.

Dec 21, 2005 7:39am

ocean store

OceanStore is neat:

OceanStore is a global persistent data store designed to scale to billions of users. It provides a consistent, highly-available, and durable storage utility atop an infrastructure comprised of untrusted servers. Any computer can join the infrastructure, contributing storage or providing local user access in exchange for economic compensation.

Well, except the economic compensation bit. If well-handled, this idea could take off like its close cousins DNS and Bittorrent. If poorly handled, someone else will do it because it feels like an idea whose time is close at hand. Google's already deployed something like it with Google Base, but they're blindly focused on its utility for "content owners" (They sound like the MPAA jackass on NPR this morning braying about "entertainment product").

OceanStore is touching on the same attitude towards storage I'm seeing in projects such as Atop Axiom, namely a slight distancing from SQL towards purer object stores. This move loses the big advantage of SQL's indexes and searches in favor of distributability and fuzzy degrees of confidence. Your credit card company isn't about to switch (SQL solved their problems neatly almost 30 years ago), but projects like ForwardTrack could play.

Dec 11, 2005 1:15am

pressthink groks bob woodward


In theory we send these people out to report back to us. Some of them penetrate the secret worlds of national security and government policy-making on our behalf. But if they keep going into the secret world they can come under the gravitational pull of another planet--the people in power, the secret-makers themselves. They're still sending back their reports, but have left our universe, so to speak.

It's a fascinating essay about the effects of access on insight. In this case, Bob Woodward comes under heavy scrutiny for his unique combination of top-level access and personal incuriousity. Arianna Huffington calls him "the dumb blonde of American journalism, so awed by his proximity to power that he buys whatever he's being sold." It's easy to forget that Woodward's big break in the Watergate case came at a time he was a lowly Metro desk writer, an unexpected source of pressure.

A few things occured to me as I read this:

  1. The cyclical (or pendular?) nature of access. Yesterday's outsider is today's insider. Today's bomb-throwing bloggers at the gates of the mass media are going to be tomorrow's establishment commentators. Lee Gomes describes this change in a recent WSJ article.
  2. The value of independents. Yesterday's announcement of Yahoo!'s purchase of Del.icio.us is a bit of a bummer. It'd be nice to have strong web firms that aren't part of the GYM, but right now everyone's getting bought. Like Bob Woodward's investigative journalism, enclosure within Yahoo! can't possibly be doing much good for anyone connected to Del.icio.us except its employees and investors.
  3. The value of independence. Keeping out means keeping perspective. How many fantasy & sci-fi stories are based on the premise that power corrupts, and diving too deeply into black magic affects your ability to reason? This is tremendously important (in my industry, anyway) at this moment that all the little guys are either bought, or trying hard to be. I ought to try to keep this in mind as I head for the lions' den this March.

Dec 7, 2005 7:57am

tagging on the rocks?

In How Tagging Could Gain Ground, Philipp Keller laments a lack of "new, visionary, inventive articles on tags."

Keller argues that he's missing a "middle-distance" view of information, somewhere between folksonomic free-for-all of tags and the hieratic temple of DMOZ. His graph puts Google at the far-left, on the assumption that the search engine rewards recognition rather than novelty searches:

I have a few resopnses to this argument:

First, I think the results of Keller's quick survey of Google vs. Del.icio.us (using the search term cryptography) aren't representative. Del's audience skews heavily geekward, so it feels natural that links about math, technology and secrecy would be represented well. Picking another topic out of a hat, the results aren't so clean-cut. Google's results for organic farming lie at about the same level of generality as its results about cryptography. There are a lot of them, many fairly basic. Narrowing searches by adding terms (e.g. politics, how-to) helps squeeze the volume down a bit. Meanwhile, Del returns just 10 links, total. Hope they're good. Conversely, the quality of results for terms like web or blog in Del.icio.us is also generic and fairly undifferentiated. Google maintains a middle-distance from the user in more situations, while Del.icio.us swings wildly based on the composition of its user base.

Second, I'm losing faith in the potential for staying informed from tagged web content alone. I've been subscribed to several Del tag searches via RSS (e.g. attention, maps, infographics), and today I unsubscribed from the last of them. The data was far too general: I was either getting a very slow trickle of information, or a torrent. Attention in particular picked up sharply from fewer than a half-dozen items per day a few months ago, and accounted for a substantial percentage of my RSS volume. Many of these items were repeats or pointers to the Attention gang's own writings. Interesting, but I get this stuff via other channels, and wasn't learning enough new stuff.

Third, I think these two points show that a social bookmarky whatchamacallit like Del.icio.us has a population sweet spot. The quality of the links was highest when the system was populated by hardcore early adopters, and dropped when middle of the bell curve moved in. In particular, the quality drop was characterized by echoes and repetitiveness. I would argue that Folksonomy Helps Me Stay Informed On a Given Topic best when the diversity of a given tag/user/resource population is high and the headcount low.

Fourth, Keller is seriously on-target when he says that the "missing in-between view can be won by analyzing tags" - his love cluster example is like a textbook example of aspects in linguistics, showing the nuances of social meaning in a term as general as love. I expect that Del.icio.us could do something like this too, but the API terms are too limiting for external experimentation, and the math is hairy. If anyone had the gall to do this on a large scale, it'd be Google - they're already treating link text as a de-facto tag on a page, so they're arguably the oldest tagging outfit on the block.

In general, I don't think that tags as a concept are sliding into irrelevance, as Keller seems to suggest. I think the bigger picture is that tags are (currently) one kind of intentional choice that can be expressed digitally. There are other such choices that may aid in search, and I imagine they won't be called "tags". There is also the approaching time when tags stop being reflective of human choices, as automated others-tagged-this-with schemes become prominent, and spammers decide that Del.icio.us Popular is a good place to be.

Dec 1, 2005 2:14am

things fall apart

I've been reading this brilliant essay by Philip K. Dick in small pieces all day: How To Build A Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later. There's a lot of meaty conjecture on the appearance of truth in fiction, and Dick's own run-ins with quasi-religious coincidences arising out of his books Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said and Ubik. It's a lot to digest, so I won't bother interpreting.

Q. What are science fiction writers "good at?"

A. Dick:

I can't claim to be an authority on anything, but I can honestly say that certain matters absolutely fascinate me, and that I write about them all the time. The two basic topics which fascinate me are "What is reality?" and "What constitutes the authentic human being?" Over the twenty-seven years in which I have published novels and stories I have investigated these two interrelated topics over and over again. I consider them important topics. What are we? What is it which surrounds us, that we call the not-me, or the empirical or phenomenal world?
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