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December 2004
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February 2005

January 2005

Jamming with your computer

AKAV put me on to GemX TexNotes Pro:

I managed to find a tool supporting a highly stochastic writing process - by keeping track of all my random thoughts. It's highly interlinkable, easy to use and runs smooth so far. … The only thing I miss is integration with a Bib-tex database.

I've just started playing with TexNotes (Windows-only) and so far it looks very good. Like AKAV, I need something that can work with me as I jot down scattered thoughts, quotations and ideas that I know are interlinked and amount to a post, an article or a book.

, a Mac-only program, is also very interesting but seems to go way beyond what TexNotes can do (amongst other things, it's a freeform database). On his blog, Steve Johnson explains a great working relationship he has evolved with this program, and in the NYT he suggests,

… 2005 may be the year when tools for thought become a reality for people who manipulate words for a living, thanks to the release of nearly a dozen new programs all aiming to do for your personal information what Google has done for the Internet. These programs all work in slightly different ways, but they share two remarkable properties: the ability to interpret the meaning of text documents; and the ability to filter through thousands of documents in the time it takes to have a sip of coffee. Put those two elements together and you have a tool that will have as significant an impact on the way writers work as the original word processors did. … These tools are smart enough to get around the classic search engine failing of excessive specificity: searching for ''dog'' and missing all the articles that have only ''canine'' in them. Modern indexing software learns associations between individual words, by tracking the frequency with which words appear near each other.

And this, from his blog, about his 'digital research library': 'When you're freewheeling through ideas that you yourself have collated -- particularly when you'd long ago forgotten about them -- there's something about the experience that seems uncannily like freewheeling through the corridors of your own memory. It feels like thinking.' And a tantalising prospect: 'The other thing that would be fascinating would be to open up these personal libraries to the external world. That would be a lovely combination of old-fashioned book-based wisdom, advanced semantic search technology, and the personality-driven filters that we've come to enjoy in the blogosphere.'

Cory has a fine, general comment on Steve Johnson's use of DEVONthink:

… his computer jams with him, suggesting neat tangents to his subjects. It's a great example of good computer-human interaction, where computers are used to programatically count and compare quantifiable elements (word and phrase frequencies) and human beings are used to pass judgement on the output of the computers. People are good at understanding and crap at counting; computers are just the reverse.

Play and learning

I am gathering my thoughts about that York University research project into grammar teaching (reported on last week) and have things to say, in this connection, about Philip's Pullman's contention (last Saturday's Guardian) that we English teachers are wasting our time "teaching" grammar.

In the meantime, here's MacNeice's wonderful, play-full poem, 'Snow':

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes —
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands —
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

No "nofollow"

Now, this is provocative and flies some kites which will come crashing to earth, but I can't not link to it given the identifiable importance of the issues at stake. For my "considered" thoughts, you can always go to Foolippic and read my comments there.


We want you to not follow nofollow and support us. We give you some very good reasons against nofollow and show you, that there are a lot of people out there, thinking like we do.

12 Reasons against nofollow

  1. nofollow does not prevent comment spam
  2. nofollow is semantically incorrect
  3. nofollow harms the connections between web sites
  4. nofollow is not useful for humans, just for search engines using PageRank or a similar technique
  5. nofollow could be used to shut web sites out
  6. nofollow discriminates legitimate users as spammers
  7. nofollow heists commentators' earned attention
  8. nofollow will not stop comment spam
  9. nofollow could be used to further discriminate weblogs
  10. nofollow prevents the Web from being a web
  11. nofollow eliminates the dissemination of free speech
  12. nofollow was developed in privacy with only search engine companies taking part in the discussion

And this from John Hoke:

I have been running Expression Engine for about 3 months now, and I must say that I can count the spam I receive on one hand opposed to when I used MT where I would average 200 per day. What is the difference? My traffic is the same, I am getting more real comments, and I am using captchas so that it is quite difficult for automated bots to spam me. Is it a perfect solution? No, but it is much better than this nofollow snowjob.

Kayaking in chaos

Not a quiet weekend after all, but one when discussion on the web about tags and tagging — with implications for much more! — felt (for me) like we'd reached a clearing in the wood. (Though my metaphor should probably be one to do with rivers. Still, there's more than enough double-take to this post's title to be going on with.)

It began with yesterday's post by Clay Shirky on Many 2 Many:

… It doesn’t matter whether we “accept” folksonomies, because we’re not going to be given that choice. The mass amateurization of publishing means the mass amateurization of cataloging is a forced move. I think Liz’s examination of the ways that folksonomies are inferior to other cataloging methods is vital, not because we’ll get to choose whether folksonomies spread, but because we might be able to affect how they spread, by identifying ways of improving them as we go.

To put this metaphorically, we are not driving a car, with gas, brakes, reverse and a lot of choice as to route. We are steering a kayak, pushed rapidly and monotonically down a route determined by the environment. We have a (very small) degree of control over our course in this particular stretch of river, and that control does not extend to being able to reverse, stop, or even significantly alter the direction we’re moving in.

Cory commented: 'These paragraphs could just as readily apply to changes in copyright, lossily compressed music, or spam: they are characteristics inherent in the ecology itself. The discussion needs to center around how to exist in their presence, not how to change them.'

And just now, responding to David Weinberger's question posted earlier today, Aren't we going to innovate our way out of this?, Clay Shirky writes:

… My answer is yes, but only for small values of "out". A big part of what's coming is accepting and adapting to the mess, instead of exiting it. …   The Web … is chaos. Chaos! You can link anything to anything else! … How on earth can you organize the Web? It plainly isn't now, and it never can be. …

The whole of this last post needs to be read and thought about a long time (several whiskies). I particularly like: 'Anything that operates at really large scale takes on the characteristics of organic systems, including especially degeneracy, the principle that there is not a one-to-one mapping between function and location in the system. (Christopher Alexander got there a long time ago, in A City Is Not a Tree, to which we might only add that the Web is not a tree either.)'

There will be losses and gains. I like LaughingMeme's approach:

People are still too stiff and rigid with their tagging technique. Loosen up. You don't have to find the "right category" to put something into, that is part of the tyranny and inflexibility of a classification scheme that we're trying to get away from. Don't tell me what it is, the "truth" of it as it were. Tell my why it matters.

But I can see the force of Liz Lawley's concerns and we'll need to go on innovating as much as possible to limit the losses and maximise the gains.

Wikipedia and Heavy Metal

Watching John Udell's excellent screencast on Wikipedia's Heavy metal umlaut entry, I had one eye on the value of screencasting generally (see previous entry) and on what I was learning about Wikipedia. Ignoring the data and its accuracy/inaccuracy, for a while it took me back to days spent observing the early stages of growth in bacteria colonies — the parallel is superficial in lots of ways, but as words multiplied and covered blank space the 'hypnotic' (Udell's word) effect cast its spell and I almost felt I was watching something organic at work.

It is a fine demonstration of collaborative editing in action. The old questions remain, however: John Udell himself comments on that part of the entry that runs, 'This is a construction only found in the Jacaltec language of Guatemala' — 'and that fact, if it is a fact' …

Or, another example, the appearance and removal of references to heavy metal's sometime "interest" in Hitler and Nazi Germany. Udell remarks he wasn't surprised to see that go, but it left me wondering about the way the darker side of some bands and music gets treated. Even the plainer statement that 'The Nazi/Hitler theme is glorified by some heavy metal groups' was edited out — 'too strong', in Udell's commentary. Yet, from the Rolling Stones' darkest days, or Bowie's infamous Nazi salute, to heavy metal — here, surely, is something unglamorous and offensive that needs to be looked at critically and in detail. As it is, we're currently left with the thought that röckdöts are designed simply to give a 'tough Germanic feel' — no explanation as to why things Germanic should be considered 'tough'.


John Udell writes:

… the possibilities of the screencast medium continue to fascinate me. Movies communicate so much more than the obligatory static screenshots you typically find on product websites. I've mostly done long-form screencasts so far. But today's exercise makes me realize that the short film -- which highlights one specific thing and takes no time at all to produce -- is a useful form as well.

This from his post, Linky in action — about his 90 second introduction to Linky, the very useful Firefox extension which 'opens a set of links found on a web page into a corresponding set of browser tabs'.

Screencasting looks interesting. Scott Rosenberg writes that John Udell 'has been pioneering what he calls "screencasting," an unusual sort of online journalism that involves taking over your browser screen with screengrabs and animations while he narrates via the audio track'. I write about Udell's screencast on Wikipedia above (next post). John Udell's guidelines for screencasting (intended to guide those about to work with him on some screencasts) go under these headings: show, don't tell; make it real; keep it interactive. 'I'm still making this up as I go along, but from my perspective these are the key guidelines.'

More screencasts from John Udell promised this year. I would like to explore their use in teaching.

"nofollow": Google's got it right

TDavid had two good posts about rel="nofollow": No Google juice for nofollow... and Treating all commenters like spammers is a slippery slope. Now I see that Matt Cutts at Google has replied to these posts (and an e-mail), and tells TDavid:

I couldn't agree with you more. I've been asking folks to move in that direction (untrusted people get nofollow, but anyone who is trusted or authenticated via something like a captcha gets full credit for their links). I think LiveJournal has already implemented this philosophy, and I'd expect many other software makers to do something like this.

TDavid comments:

I continue to feel that making this an option in the blog hosted and blog software arena (wake up Typepad, MSN Spaces) is an important move. Down with the bad guys, yes, but let's be sure not to punish the good guys in the process. It is nice to know that Google feels the same way.

I asked TypePad's help service if there is any way I can turn "nofollow" off for commenters and TrackBack-ers I want to trust and so let their links get full search-engine credit. TypePad told me:

There is currently no way to turn it off. At this point, it's automatic on all links. We decided to get it up and running as quickly as possible to short-circuit the ne'erdowells. I will pass the idea along of possibly making a Safe List, where this attribute isn't used, to our Development Team. Thank you for letting us know it's something you'd like to see.

Characteristically helpful and prompt response from TypePad's helpline — and I hope TypePad users get the option as to whether or not to apply "nofollow" very soon.

Is this a conversation?

I'm not sure why there's so much consternation about the rel="nofollow" attribute, both in the comments on this blog and around the blogosphere. It's intuitively obvious to me that this is a good thing. Why? Because the choice of which URLs on this site that I think are worth linking to and worth indexing are now back under my control. That's a good thing. … I think in general if web results are going to be ranked on links among other factors, then they should be more "intentional." If this has the effect of pushing people back to their own blogs and out of my comments, I think that's great. And if it has the effect of wacking my page rank as well as others, so be it. I'd rather have a more purposefully ranked system, then watch it being gamed as it is now. Russell Beattie

Except if you're on TypePad it's not apparently possible for you to turn on indexing. Over at Anil's, Lou comments, 'I expect blog software companies to provide a way to manage comments to remove the nofollow attribute from a given poster's comments', and Adam says, 'I think I'd feel at least a little bit better about the no-follow tag if the blogger authors and typepad folks (Hi Anil!) made it *easy* for the blog owners to confer page rank upon comments on an individual basis, or at least automatically conferred page rank on authenticated comments'.

I'd always thought it a given that the power of the net lay in great part in our ability to build up a subtle web of cross-referencing and links — the kind of thing one does in talking and writing every day. Now, the clamp is down and conversation will be more difficult. I can't believe that most of us came into this in order to be driven back to our blogs and splendid isolation. Whatever this does for spam, it's certainly got me thinking that the web is heading towards greater separateness, a position reinforced when I read (thanks, Ian!) that 'in the not too distant future, more people will subscribe to topic/tag/remix feeds than feeds of actual people' (Read/Write Web). Well, I'd rather seek out the conversations, thank you, and leave the computer puttering away in the background, dribbling a modest number of topic/tag feeds whose purpose will be severely subordinated to the primary thing that matters to me in my life, the relationships I have with other people.

A while back, I came across a great remark about the invention of the margin. We must all have enjoyed those graffiti-like scribblings that lit up our hours spent studying in libraries. Comments are not entirely dissimilar to margins, sharing something of the margin's capacity for opening up new lines of thought and suggesting new avenues for investigation. I want a world where we can connect to each other through comments/margins, linking (sometimes, yes) to our own posts if we think we have something worth adding to the debate and it's silly to try to repeat ourselves all over again in what should be the smaller space of a note, comment or jotting. I can't improve on how John Battelle has put this (see my previous post), and I believe he's right, the effect of the rel="nofollow" initiative will be to 'discourage active and intelligent dialog on a post'. In fact, I think this has already started — for psychological reasons: I am not so pushy or impressed by myself as to want to flog you my blog by ceaselessly (and meaninglessly) linking to it, but when I read some of the disparaging comments flying around now about bloggers who ever dare to link to their own postings in comments then I feel great reluctance to go down that road at all. And yet, this (linking) is what we do all the time in conversation ("Yeah, I had just that conversation the other day with X — she said … and I said …"), in academic life, in our work places … We're sociable and social animals and we need to retain the ability to function fully like this in comments on each other's sites. I'm entirely happy for the owner of the site to exercise control (we do, don't we? I excise comment spam the moment it appears and ban the source from further commenting), but if we take the route proposed then talking to the web will come to feel even more like talking to a wall than it does for most of us already.

(How ironic to be in this position when those of us who joined the game relatively recently thought we were following good practice in developing the art of commenting — as advocated by, inter alia and for example, Robert Scoble and Brian Bailey.)

I am also bothered that my own blogging company, as celebrated on Anil's blog, seems more impressed by its technical skills and performance than it has been concerned with consulting its customer base:

I'm also incredibly impressed with our Six Apart team. We didn't just announce, we shipped, on multiple platforms in multiple countries, in an incredibly short period of time. That's just awesome to watch, because I think our strength as a blogging company is in having the resources to pull that off, while our strength in not being one of the behemoths like the search companies is that we can be nimble enough to just ship. Kick ass.

Great to feel triumph (justified, too!) that you've handled the technical, executive and managerial issues so well, but what did your customers want? Did you ask them? And are you listening now? Six Apart's/TypePad's strength as a blogging company cannot be said to reside in having the resources to pull this off.

Comment spam and "nofollow"

"re Google’s rel="nofollow"  initiative, I am pleased to see that voices critical and/or doubtful are making themselves heard. With due acknowledgment of the anti-social nature of irresponsible self-promotion by linking to your own blog in comments, I share the anxieties of other small (and not so small) bloggers and left some thoughts on Anil Dash's post yesterday, The Social Impacts of Software Choices.

Will the "cure" be worse than the disease? Ben Hammersley thinks so: 'forcing comment spammers to cast a wider net will cause them to target the long tail of people who have no idea what to do'. There's also the issue of whether or not companies are right to have imposed this initiative on their customers, about which TDavid makes good points. Various writers have raised the problem that webmasters now have an easy way to 'abuse the tag and control the PageRank of their pages' (eg, Slowplay).

I was pleased to read John Battelle yesterday, questioning the rel="nofollow" development in a fair, calm and open-minded way. I would have hoped to have had more discussion within the blogosphere before this move had been forced on so many of us. John Battelle wrote:

… what bothers me is that there may well be an ecology that evolves based on the link mojo in comments which we can't imagine, but that would be important and wonderful, and that will not develop if every comment has a tag telling search engines to ignore it. Like it or not, search engines are now processors of our collective reality, and fiddling with that requires some contemplation.

In an update to this same posting, John Battelle adds (leading off from observations about Anil Dash's post and the discussion-in-comments it attracted):

No Follow will discourage people from doing what I'll call "fully web-expressed writing" on other people's blogs - where they write in that rather post-modern way of linking as they write, which is what we all do in this bloggy world we live in. A deft web writer is like a spider pulling strands to support his or her central thesis - it's an emerging form of communication, and from what I can tell, it's going to be very important long term to our culture.

If as a commentator on someone's blog, you know that you're spending ten, twenty, or more minutes crafting a response, and that response - because it lives in someone's comments field - will be ignored by the conferrers of future societal attention (ie - search indexes) - then I can imagine many folks will simply avoid writing thoughtful responses in comments altogether. Instead, they'll post on their own site. It seems that one of the things No Follow will do - subtly or not - is discourage active and intelligent dialog on a post. That is not, to my mind, a good thing.

Ben Hammersley concluded:

… as respecting rel="nofollow" will involve loosing an enormous amount of implicit metadata, any tools that are interested in that will be forced to ignore it. Technorati will have to choose if it’s a site that measures raw interconnectivity, or some curious High School metric of look-at-that-person-but-don’t-pay-her-any-attention that the selective use of the rel="nofollow" attribute will produce. For many purposes, this would mean the results are totally debased and close to useless.

And TrackBacks? Like John Battelle, I've been led to believe that they are affected by rel="nofollow". Is this true?