Monthly Archives: May 2005

Jon Udell nails it yet again

As somebody (it was Alan Levine, CogDogBlog) observed in a recent blog posting, it’s not necessarily the content or the subject, but the attitude…
Screencasts around the Net

Screencasting is a medium that can deliver order-of-magnitude improvements over conventional documentation and training. If people aren’t “getting it,” maybe it’s time to stop blaming them and start telling stories they can’t forget or misunderstand.

Two for the commonplace

I’m forever finding passages in my reading that seem especially fraught with implication. Often (if I’m reading a book I own) I make a telegraphic note in the back endpapers –sometimes just a page number, sometimes a word or two to summarize. Last night I happened to pick up Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an inquiry into values (1974) –can’t remember when I last read it, but a note at the back pointed me to this passage:

Time to switch to the psychomotor traps. this is the domain of understanding which is most directly related to what happens to the machine.
Here by far the most frustrating gumption trap is inadequate tools. Nothing’s quite so demoralizing as a tool hang-up. Buy good tools as you can afford them and you’ll never regret it… Good tools, as a rule, don’t wear out, and good secondhand tools are much better than inferior new ones. Study tool catalogs. You can learn a lot from them. (290-291)
There’s one psychomotor gumption trap, muscular insensitivity, which accounts for some real damage. It results in part from lack of kinesthesia, a failure to realize that although the externals of a cycle are rugged, inside the engine are delicate precision parts which can be easily damaged by muscular insensitivity. There’s what’s called “mechanic’s feel,” which is very obvious to those who know what it is, but hard to describe to those who don’t; and when you see someone working on a machine who doesn’t have it, you tend to suffer with the machine.
The mechanic’s feel comes from a deep inner kinesthetic feeling for the elasticity of materials. Some materials, like ceramics, have very little, so that when you thread a porcelain fitting you’re very careful not to apply great pressures. Other materials, like steel, have tremendous elasticity, more than rubber, but in a range in which, unless you’re working with large mechanical forces, the elasticity isn’t apparent.
With nuts and bolts you’re in the range of large mechanical forces and you should understand that within these ranges metals are elastic. When you take up a nut there’s a point called “finger-tight” where there’s contact but no takeup of elasticity. Then there’s “snug,” in which the easy surface elasticity is taken up. Then here’s a rance called “tight,” in which all the elasticity is taken up. The force required to reach these three points is different for each size of nut and bolt, and different for lubricated bolts and for locknuts. The forces are different for steel and cast iron and brass and aluminum and plastics and ceramics. But a person with mechanic’s feel knows when someting’s tight and stops. A person without it goes right on past and strips the threads or breaks the assembly.
A “mechanic’s feel” implies not only an understanding for the elasticity of metal but for its softness… It’s important to understand that the metal behind the surfaces can normally take great shock and stress but the surfaces themselves cannot. (291-292)

Another one from last night: I’ve been reading Paul Johnson’s The Birth of the Modern: world society 1815-1830 in the last minutes before turning out the light, and this one slugged me with significance:

In the years after 1815 no article was more symbolic of middle-class values and wealth than was the pianoforte. It was a sign not merely of respectability but of culture… The rise of the piano had been rapid and its reverberations felt throughout the world of music. Beethoven’s early sonatas had been written as much for the harpsichord as for the primitive pianos then available. But it was the piano which made the player’s technique “brilliant” –a vogue world of the time. Mozart had been happy to keep his hands close to the keys. But in the new age of musical genius, a touch of theater became obligatory. Clemeti was the first to start raising and flourishing his hands while playing; Dussek, another leading player-composer, took the next step by putting himself sideways, his right profile to the audience, the lid of his grand piano open; Moscheles, who took over as the top pianist in the 1820s, specialized in the whole range of virtuoso techniques and exhibitionism the audiences now demanded.
As the technology advanced… Beethoven set the pace, He forced the manufacturers to provide more sophisticated and powerful instruments by writing music that would have been unplayable a decade before… (129)

Gobsmacked again

Another lovely encapsulation of Long Tail ideas, from Dave Weinberger on a talk he gave in Italy:

I talked about – guess what? – how the miscellaneous, which traditionally is where the structure of knowledge fails, is becoming in the digital world where knowledge begins.

Jon Udell, yet again

A couple of trenchant quotes:

The social tagging systems are a laboratory in which techniques of statistical classification will be explored. As Clay Shirky has pointed out, the terms “movies,” “film,” and “cinema” are not just synonyms; they encode real cultural differences. A taxonomy that stamps out those differences won’t serve the various constituencies. We can still build systems around taxonomies, but we have to let the footpaths emerge, and in this realm they’re just fuzzy statistical traces.


Describe your domain of discourse as well as you can, because shared context makes communication more efficient. But don’t assume that your schemas are completely accurate or that they define the entire domain of discourse. Systems must be “dynamic enough to extend and refine their context through experience — i.e., they must learn”.
Good advice for a loosely-coupled world, though following it is easier said than done. and

Clay Shirky strikes again

You’re It!: a blog on tagging
The blog looks like it will be very worthwhile to follow if it lives up to this:

tags keep found things found. Search is about finding things, tags (in the mode) are about keeping them. Like many people, I stopped remembering things when the internets came along, and started remembering pointers to things instead. Many’s the time I’ve wanted to find something I read N months ago, and had to remember whether I saw it on slashboing or blogpop, or I had to recreate a multi-word search on Google. Tags, fby contrast, are thumbtacks with filters.
…Search centers around the supplier. Tags center around the user, and any technology that recognizes that each user is the center of their world has good adoption characteristics.
– Second, tags add ‘people’ and ‘time’ as cross-cutting elements. provides a measure of social velocity… More, much more, is coming, by hanging new kinds of filtering and sorting off of those characteristics, including especially shared awareness among tagging groups, and the subsequent ability to search the group mind.

This sort of posting makes it clear that blogs are maturing into elegant discourse.

Saying things just right

It occurs to me that most of the material in this blog is quotations of other people, somebodies who have put something just so, and struck a resonant frequency or two. As such, the value to anybody besides myself is probably in the trackback, when I link to where I encountered the trenchant whatever. Here’s a case in point, from an interview with Joi Ito by R. U. Sirius:

So what have we learned? We’ve learned that conversations on mailing lists tend to explode in flame wars. We’ve also learned that if you make a web page, there is a good chance no one will notice. Mailing lists are like rooms that people can get into, but very difficult to get people out of. Everyone in the room hears everyone else in the room. Too much feedback. A personal web page …. No one can hear you. Not enough feedback. Life and good emergent systems live in the interesting place between too much feedback and too little feedback, that very special space between chaos and order. It’s the sweet spot of emergent order that we see in fractals, life, and the high of being “in the zone.”

(He goes on to talk about the blogosphere and Wikipedia as instances of sweet spots of the moment)

On being prepared

Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Climate of Man has been running in New Yorker. Among the memorable anecdotes is one describing paleoclimatologist Peter deMenocal’s work with linking sedimentary data with archaeological findings. Here’s the trenchant bit:

Tell Leilan was never an easy place to live. Much like, say, western Kansas today, the Khabur plains received enough annual rainfall—about seventeen inches—to support cereal crops, but not enough to grow much else. “Year-to-year variations were a real threat, and so they obviously needed to have grain storage and to have ways to buffer themselves,” deMenocal observed. “One generation would tell the next, ‘Look, there are these things that happen that you’ve got to be prepared for.’ And they were good at that. They could manage that. They were there for hundreds of years.”
He went on, “The thing they couldn’t prepare for was the same thing that we won’t prepare for, because in their case they didn’t know about it and because in our case the political system can’t listen to it. And that is that the climate system has much greater things in store for us than we think.”

An uncomfortable parallel from yesterday’s The Coming Influenza Pandemic?:

A while ago we had a story on the government running computer simulations to plot strategies on containment. Nature is constantly moving, testing limits, finding openings without looking for them. This is proof that simulating is probably folly, and right only by luck. A deadly pandemic, if it occurs, will come only by the confluence of events which could never have been predicted, as all “accidents” are.