Wednesday, May 25, 2005


Ch. 5 Togetherness of David Weinberger's Small Pieces Loosely Joined

Are our lives just part of an impersonal social machine, or a variety of such machines, or are we hopeful individuals who can make a difference? Weinberger discusses this dialectic, the interpenetration between the importance of the individual and the importance of the group.

In the "real world" individuals often become insignificant as the size of a group grows and this creates all sorts of problems for both individuals and groups. For example, individuals begin to feel alienated and powerless, whilst groups feel they have to simplify what they stand for because complex messages can more easily be misunderstood. So, in the "real world" we often have a dumbing down all around in the transactions that occur between individuals and groups. Think of a political election, for instance.

The Web often caters for individuality better than the "real world" does, despite the huge size of the Web, its participants are working out ways of defying the apparent law that individuality is inversely proportional to group size.

Take celebrity for instance. Real world celebrity is phoney. Those who follow famous celebrities never develop anything approaching a real connection or relationship with them.

But there are famous people on the Web too and occasionally you do get the opportunity to interact with them in an authentic manner. Or alternatively, as I found out through participation in the logo list over a number of years that there are experts who are prepared to share as equals (Brian Harvey) and there are experts who have their name in lights but who stand aloof (Seymour Papert). Sure, Papert has some great ideas and is a great writer but Brian Harvey is just as knowledgable and is prepared to share his expertise day in day out for years on end. I know which sort of expert I prefer but wouldn't have even noticed the difference without the Web.

There are many such instances, for example in the past I've followed the current conversation, as a lurker, of Marvin Minsky ("Father of AI") at and more recently downloaded a draft copy of his next book, The Emotion Machine, from his site at MIT.

Moving on ... My preferred way of buying books is through amazon because they offer a better service than a "real world" bookstore. Before I buy a book I nearly always check out features of that book through amazon.

There are several features of the amazon service that I particularly like:
  • readers reviews of a book I'm considering buying
  • readers recommendations, listed with particular books, of other similar books that the reader thinks are either better or as good as the book under consideration
  • listing and ranking of other books that were bought by customers who bought the book I'm considering
  • the opportunity to view selected pages and the contents and index of their books
  • lists of books created by enthusiasts of a particular topic (list-mania)
All of these features (and there are more) taken together add up to a far better service than can obtained by going to town and looking in a regular, old fashioned bookstore.

As part of his explanation of individual / group dynamics Weinberger pointed out something about amazon that I was vaguely aware of but hadn't fully comprehended.

In the first place amazon allowed readers to post reviews of books. But then some best selling books, such as Harry Potter, prompted over 3 thousand reviews and this defeated the initial purpose, because there were too many reviews for anyone to read. What happened next is that amazon presented the average rating of the book, from one to 5 stars. This gave a mass summary of readers' opinions but also had a downside. It didn't take advantage of the explicit and often helpful comments contained in the readers' reviews. So amazon added another level of review: readers of the reviews can rate the reviews indicating whether a particular review is helpful or not. This move pushed things back towards meeting individual needs but not far enough. Amazon also began flagging the reader reviewers whose reviews were highly rated by other readers so that their reviews stood out, eg. with a "Top 50" reviewer graphic.. This also made individual reader reviewers more recognisable on amazon.

Weinberger concludes his description quite consciously with reference to the Hegelian dialectic between the individual and the mass:
"This progression has an almost Hegelian logic to it, each step following from the others, each propelled by an internal contradiction: the web consists of hundreds of millions of individuals. They are a mass, but each member is unique. Individuals write reviews. The massness of the individuals makes the aggregate of reviews useless. So Amazon capture summary information, 1-5 stars, from the mass of individual reviews. But because those numeric rankings slight the individual side of the web, the site begins to star the individual reviewers - but by using the masses review of the reviewers as its criterion. And so on. One can almost feel the breeze of the pendulum as it swings this way and that: masses, individuality, masses, individuality. And most important, a new relationship between them: the Web consists of a mass that refuses to lose its individual face." (115)

Sunday, May 22, 2005


David Weinberger's "Small Pieces Loosely Joined"
Chapter 3: Time

Real world time is an irreversible, relentless river, once it has passed we cannot retrieve it.

This is old knowledge, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You can’t step into the same river twice”

In the real world not only is there a tyranny of distance there is also a tyranny of the NOW. We always operate in the present and if we stuff badly then there is sometimes no going back.

Weinberger uses the metaphor of a beaded necklace passing over a blade, remorselessly, one bead at a time.

But time on the web is more like a hand writing than a necklace being pulled across a blade (69). On the Web there are many branching threads of conversation which extend backwards and forwards in time. The threads are often unfinished, the conversation can continue at any time convenient to the participants.

In the real world time and space are divided into uniform units. On the Web the feel of time and space is much more elastic.
It is not an accident that the Web is distracting. It is the Web’s hyperlinked nature to pull our attention here and there. But it is not at all clear that our new distractedness represents a weakening of our culture’s intellectual powers, a lack of focus, a diversion from the important work that needs to be done, a disruption of our very important schedule. Distraction may instead represent our interests finally finding the type of time that suits us best…. Our experience of time on the Web, its ungluing and regluing of threads, may be less an artefact of the Web than the Web’s enabling our interest to find its own rhythm. Perhaps the Web isn’t shortening our attention span. Perhaps the world is just getting more interesting. (69)

Thursday, May 19, 2005


David Weinberger's Small Pieces Loosely Joined
Chapter 2: Space

The Web changes our perception of Space and hence changes our perception of what it means to a human living in space.

Real world space has the hard edges of fixed dimensions. It is a pre-existing container of fixed size that we are stuck with as part of reality. Geography can be and often is a restrictive tyranny. Australia has been described by historians (Blainey) as the tyranny of distance.

Web space, by contrast is entirely created by humans. It’s not a fixed space, it’s an expanding space, google is searching 8,058,044,651 web pages and returns results in a fraction of a second. That is almost miraculous :-)

Now we have blogs and sites that search and categorise blogs. Check out technorati, blogdex, bloglines etc. It grows. And as it gets bigger your ability to find your way around has perhaps surprisingly increased. Search has dramatically improved. It’s now far easier to find and conveniently reference quality information on the Web.

Imagine a place with billions of rooms with magic doors that are psychically linked to other rooms by the interests of the people travelling from room to room. Your nearness to other rooms is created by your level of interest. Is that magic or is that the Web?

When you visit a web site do you feel that the web site is travelling to you or that you are travelling through space to the web site? Even though the web page is being downloaded to my computer my subjective feeling is that I’m travelling somewhere else to that web page. The Web has the feel of place about it, it is place-ial, so it feels spatial
In the final analysis, we seem to have a choice of metaphors that are equally suited to the task. We could think of the Web as a giant photocopier that delivers copies of sites. We could think of it as a medium through which we see sites. We could think of it as a library from which we request copies. But we don’t. We experience the Web as a web: a set of nodes that are linked one to another, creating a space through which we travel. (40)

Monday, May 16, 2005

celebration of imperfection

Chapter 4: Perfection of David Weinberger's Small Pieces Loosely Joined

"The Web works because it is broken" (83) or "The Web will always be a little bit broken" (76) and "The Web is broken on purpose" (79)
"The imperfection of the Web isn't a temporary lapse; it's a design decision. It flows directly from the fact that the Web is unmanaged and uncontrolled so that it can grow rapidly and host innovations of every sort. The designers weighed perfection against growth and creativity, and perfection lost. The Web is broken on purpose." (79)

The Web/ Internet is unmanaged and uncontrolled. Nobody owns the internet. It is a network of networks. It has no centre. There is no job in the world called, Chief manager of the WWW.

Anyone can link anything to anything else. Openness, freedom, growth and creativity are far more important than perfection on the Internet / Web. No one has to ask anyone for permission before they put something on the Web (82).

People often don't talk nice on the Web. There is an in your face informality about the place. (91)

People like it. There are over 8 billion Web pages and a new blog is created every 5 seconds or so. The Web is refreshing.

One of our biggest joint undertakings is successful because it is the opposite of a corporate model.

It has been built by voluntary work. There is no centre. There are no ideal images. All types of voices can be heard. It is a bottom up design.

Weinberger contrasts this with corporate speak, when something goes wrong, they use phrases that begin with:
"We regret ..."
"Rest assured ..."
"We appreciate ..."
"Please accept ..."
"Your call is important to us ..."

And when are going right then glossy marketing brochures show ideal images of smiling people clustering and gesturing about corporate product xxx

The Web liberates us from that. The Web is human, it feels human, on the Web we hear the sound of the authentic human voice. The Web is not perfect, like us.

ironic sig

I like the reflective irony of Campbell Menzie's new sig, recently noticed on an IT teacher's list:
The Internet's a mirror of our society and if you don't like what you see in the mirror, you don't fix the mirror you fix the thing that's reflected
- Vint Cerf (TCP/IP co-creator)
I face that problem every morning when I shave - Campbell

Campbell teaches both English and IT and it shows.

This inspired me to reread the final chapter ('Hope') of David Weinberger's Small Pieces Loosely Joined: a unified theory of the web. Which reminds me, that I intend to review that book.

becoming obsolete

great comeback from a year 9 student the other day when I described his age group as the "ipod generation"

quick as a flash he replied, "you're the floppy disk generation"


richard feynman

I was moved to tears when I read this letter by Nobel physicist Richard Feynman to his first wife, Arline Greenbaum, after she died in 1945. She already had TB when they married in 1942.

This is part of an edited selection of letters published by his daughter, Michelle Feynman, for the first time.

To Arline Feynman, October 17, 1946


I adore you, sweetheart ... It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you'll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing. But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and what I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you.

I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead — but I still want to comfort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you — I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We started to learn to make clothes together — or learn Chinese — or getting a movie projector.

Can't I do something now? No. I am alone without you and you were the "idea-woman" and general instigator of all our wild adventures. When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn't have worried.

Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want to stand there.

I'll bet that you are surprised that I don't even have a girlfriend after two years. But you can't help it, darling, nor can I — I don't understand it, for I have met many girls ... and I don't want to remain alone — but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes. You only are left to me. You are real.

My darling wife, I do adore you. I love my wife. My wife is dead,


PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don't know your new address.

Friday, May 06, 2005

the world is flat

The intersection of politics, technology and education is the subject of Thomas Friedman's new book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century

After reading the reviews at amazon and by Doc Searls (Linux Journal) I have to get a copy

Friedman is making a number of points I agree with - rapid globablisation is a good thing, the internet is corroding and flattening all institutions, there are more opportunities emerging for the individual, there needs to be more democracy and less poverty in the world for these trends to be fully realised

Here's the best amazon review I could find:
Three-act structures seem to be quite fashionable in books these days, what with Jane Fonda describing her life as a three-act play in her just-published "My Life So Far" and now with New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman introducing the concept of "Globalization 3.0" in his newest book. Perhaps it gives readers like myself a sense of order that may not be readily apparent otherwise. According to Friedman, nation-states ruled "Globalization 1.0" until 1800, while multinational corporations dominated through the Industrial Revolution in "Globalization 2.0" until the new millennium began. He explains that the burgeoning global fiber-optic network has transcended national borders and corporate entities to the point of starting a new defining phenomenon of our economy - the outsourcing of the U.S. economy's service and information-technology work to India and other developing nations.

The result is a flattened world, a macro-level regrouping of economic forces which occur periodically on a global basis. By no means unprecedented, Friedman's treatise goes further to describe the ten forces that have decimated us in similar ways through history, including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the discrediting of Soviet-style command economies, as well as the advent of search engines like Google, most of whose queries are now no longer in English. The concept of a seemingly borderless world is hardly groundbreaking, but Friedman does make a compelling case for the great leveling going on that allows individuals worldwide to collaborate and compete on a whole new scale. Friedman thinks big. Wireless mobility, for instance, is a "mobile me" revolution that will have its "full flattening effect by freeing people to truly be able to work and communicate from anywhere to anywhere with anything."

But Friedman understands that true globalization will be limited by the rampant poverty of the third world. "You cannot drive economic growth," Friedman says, "in a place where 50 percent of the people are infected with malaria or half of the kids are malnourished or a third of the mothers are dying of AIDS." What further complicates this concept is 9/11 and the ensuing threat of terrorism that brings back the reality of national borders. Friedman's treatment of 9/11 and Middle Eastern issues is insightful, but it doesn't convincingly settle the question of whether global trade or global terror is our age's central organizing principle. Taking advantage of the Bush administration's dismissal of securing poorly guarded Russian nuclear weapons and material, the al Qaeda could buy, build or steal nuclear weapons. In such a case, the surging growth of the Indian and Chinese entrepreneurial classes seems rather incidental. As a result, the book becomes more valuable as a guide to surviving in the computer age. It provides specific steps for individuals, companies, and poor nations to adapt to a "flat world". Friedman is big on metaphors, catch-phrases like "in-sourcing" and "in-forming" and sound-bite theories like "no two nations having McDonald's have gone to war". His glibness aside, he seems to know the world around him through his extensive travels and adept observations. Highly recommended.
Reviewer: Ed Uyeshima (San Francisco, CA USA)

Doc Searls has reviewed Friedman's book from an Open Source angle, Part 1 and Part 2.

Colour Train

I'm still learning basic techniques using photoshop. With this tutorial on colour masking I've learnt how to turn the picture black and white except for the train.

Alan Kay

I was reminded today, by a DECS Xpress editorial of all things, about the creativity of Alan Kay.

I knew that he was the brains behind the first Graphical User Interface (pinched by Jobs and Wozniak when they built the Mac) and author of the first object orientated programming language, SmallTalk, but had forgotten or missed that he also initiated the laptop computer and the tablet computer.

He now heads a team working on educational software called Squeak, which I'm downloading now as I write this.

Alan Kay is a futurist, here are some nice quotes:

The real romance is out ahead and yet to come. The computer revolution hasn't started yet. Don't be misled by the enormous flow of money into bad defacto standards for unsophisticated buyers using poor adaptations of incomplete ideas.

I invented the term Object-Oriented, and I can tell you I did not have C++ in mind.
A new point of view is worth 80 IQ points
Java and C++ make you think that the new ideas are like the old ones. Java is the most distressing thing to hit computing since MS-DOS.
All creativity is an extended form of a joke.
The best way to predict the future is to invent it.
If you don't fail at least 90 percent of the time, you're not aiming high enough.
Here's an article by him, Predicting the Future, which is a great read, he brings alive the whole idea of thinking about the future, for example:
Another problem is that we don't have a very good concept of the future itself. McLuhan's line--one of my favorites--is, "We're driving faster and faster into the future, trying to steer by using only the rear-view mirror."

Whitehead, the British philosopher, remarked that the greatest invention of the 19th century was the invention of invention itself. Not only were there 10 and 20 times more patent applications at the British government patent office, but about 80 percent of those patents were absolutely crackpot ideas. This was the century in which anybody who had an idea thought he could be an inventor and submit a patent for it because everyone else was doing it.

McLuhan had a great line about the 20th century. He said, "The 20th century is the century in which change changed." He was referring back to Heraclitus, the Greek who said, "The only thing constant is change itself." From our standpoint it's hard to see that as a revolutionary statement, but remember that before the Greeks, it was unreasonable for a person to be born into a world, live in a world, and die in a world that was any different from the world in which his parents had lived, or his parents' parents and so forth. Things were pretty much the same for many thousands of years.

But McLuhan was saying something else, that when change changes, you can't predict the future in the same way anymore; you have some second order or third order effects. So the biggest thing we need to invent in the 1990s is the invention of the future itself. In other words, to think of the concept of future not as a thing that comes from the past--although it has come from the past in a way--but to realize that the forces that are bringing about change right now are so great that it's very difficult to sit down and make simple extrapolations.

Science fiction had some ideas about us going to the moon partly because there were some fledgling things called rockets and someone could imagine one big enough to get us here. And science fiction could imagine robots with positronic brains, because Isaac Asimov did not have to explain how positronic brains worked. But science fiction totally missed the idea of the computer. Before the power of the transistor really became apparent there was just no conceivable extrapolation.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

clipping mask

I'm continuing to learn photoshop. There are a huge number of good tutorials at this site

I've learnt how to merge an image into words using the clipping mask technique

I found another tutorial that makes a serious effort to explain what selections, channels and masks are, something I've been meaning to learn for some time

Selections are maps of colours, filters, adjustments etc.

Masks are stored selection maps. Channels, such as alpha channels, are where these masks are saved