Sunday, January 30, 2005
Elections in Iraq
Iraq held its first national elections in over 50 years today. I don't have much to add to what has already been said, but I will note that it doesn't surprise me that the insurgents were quieter than expected. One of the big advantages of terrorism is the surprise factor, and on a day like today, security forces are expecting attacks and are much more likely to spot unusual activities and investigate. My guess is that attacks will intensify in the coming weeks, as the insurgents test the new government...
Lots of people are commenting on this so I'll try to perform some of that information aggregation that blogs are known for, starting with the Iraqi Blogs, then moving on to the rest of the blogosphere...
Update: Moved all the links into the extended entry. Click below to read on... Iraqi Blogs:
Several Updates: Gah! Information overload. Many links added, but I think I'm done for the night. The funny thing is that I haven't even begun to scrape the tip of all the good information that's out there. Partaking in an exercise like this is one of the things that really puts the need for good information aggregation into perspective. But this is a start, I guess...
Another Update: I lied, several new links.
Posted by Mark on January 30, 2005 at 07:06 PM .: link :.
Thursday, January 27, 2005
In a stroke of oddly compelling genius (or possibly madness), Jon Udell has put together a remarkable flash screencast (note: there is sound and it looks best in full screen mode) detailing the evolution of the Heavy metal umlaut page on Wikipedia.
It's a wonderfully silly topic, but my point is somewhat serious too. The 8.5-minute screencast turns the change history of this Wiki page into a movie, scrolls forward and backward along the timeline of the document, and follows the development of several motifs. Creating this animated narration of a document's evolution was technically challenging, but I think it suggests interesting possibilities.Wikis are one of those things that just don't sound right when you hear about what they are and how they work. It's one thing to institute a collaborative encyclopedia, but Wikis embrace a philosophy of openness that seems entirely too permissive. Wikis are open to the general public and allow anyone to modify their contents without any sort of prior review. What's to stop a troll from vandalizing a page? Nothing, except that someone will come along and correct it shortly thereafter (Udell covers an episode of vandalism in the screencast). It's a textbook self-organizing system (note that wikis focus not on the content, but rather on establishing an efficient mechanism for collaboration; the content is an emergent property of the system). It should be interesting to see how it progresses... [via Jonathon Delacour, who also has an interesting discussion about umlauts and diaereses and another older post about wikis]
Posted by Mark on January 27, 2005 at 08:02 PM .: link :.
Sunday, January 23, 2005
Long Tails, TV, and DVR
Apparently Chris Anderson (author of the Wired article I posted last week) has a blog in which he comments regularly on the long tail concept.
In one post, he speculates how the long tail relates to television programs, DVRs and the internet. In short, he proposes a browser plugin that you could use when you see a reference to a TV show that you are interested in and want to record. You would simply need to highlight the show title and right-click, where a new option would be available called "Record to DVR," at which point you could go about setting up your DVR to record the show.
I don't have a DVR, so perhaps I'm not the best person to comment, but it strikes me that if you're reading a recommendation for a show, you might want to go back and watch all the previous shows as well. For instance, a lot of people have been recommending Lost to me recently. If I had a PVR, I might set it to record the show, but I'd have missed a significant portion of the show (I don't know how important that would be or not). What I'd really love is to go back and watch the series from the beginning.
Comcast has a feature called "On Demand" which would be perfect for this, but they don't seem to have much in the way of capacity (though if you have HBO, I understand they sometimes make whole seasons of various popular shows available) and they don't have Lost. Evan Kirchoff recently posted something that put an interesting twist on this subject: other people are his PVR. When he finds a show he wants to watch, he simply downloads it via torrents:
What I really wanted all this time, it turns out, is just the assurance that somebody out there in the luminiferous aether is faithfully recording every show, in case I later decide that I want it. Setting a VCR in advance is way too much work, but having to download a 350-megabyte file is an action that's just affirmative enough to distill one's preferences.It's certainly an interesting perspective - a typical emergent property of the self-organizing internet (along with all the warts that entails) - and it's a hell of a lot better than waiting for reruns. I don't have the 400 gigs of hard drive space on my system that Evan does, but I might check out an episode or two. Of course, there's something to be said about the quality of the watching-tv-on-a-computer experience and, as Evan mentions, I'm not quite sure about the legality of such a practice (his reasoning seems logical, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything). Perhaps a micropayment solution (i.e. download an episode for a dollar, or one season for $10) would work. Of course, this would destroy the DVD market (which I imagine some people would be none to happy about), but it would also lengthen the tail, as quality niche shows (i.e. the long tail) might be able to carve out a profitable piece of the pie.
The best solution would, of course, combine all the various features above into one application/experience, but I'm not holding my breath just yet.
Posted by Mark on January 23, 2005 at 11:55 AM .: link :.
Sunday, January 16, 2005
Chasing the Tail
The Long Tail by Chris Anderson : An excellent article from Wired that demonstrates a few of the concepts and ideas I've been writing about recently. One such concept is well described by Clay Shirky's excellent article Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality. A system governed by a power law distribution is essentially one where the power (whether it be measured in wealth, links, etc) is concentrated in a small population (when graphed, the rest of the population's power values resemble a long tail). This concentration occurs spontaneously, and it is often strengthened because members of the system have an incentive to leverage their power to accrue more power.
In systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome. This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution.As such, this distribution manifests in all sorts of human endeavors, including economics (for the accumulation of wealth), language (for word frequency), weblogs (for traffic or number of inbound links), genetics (for gene expression), and, as discussed in the Wired article, entertainment media sales. Typically, the sales of music, movies, and books follow a power law distribution, with a small number of hit artists who garner the grand majority of the sales. The typical rule of thumb is that 20% of available artists get 80% of the sales.
Because of the expense of producing the physical product, and giving it a physical point of sale (shelf-space, movie theaters, etc...), this is bad news for the 80% of artists who get 20% of the sales. Their books, movies, and music eventually go out of print and are generally forgotten, while the successful artists' works are continually reprinted and sold, building on their own success.
However, with the advent of the internet, this is beginning to change. Sales are still governed by the power law distribution, but the internet is removing the physical limitations of entertainment media.
An average movie theater will not show a film unless it can attract at least 1,500 people over a two-week run; that's essentially the rent for a screen. An average record store needs to sell at least two copies of a CD per year to make it worth carrying; that's the rent for a half inch of shelf space. And so on for DVD rental shops, videogame stores, booksellers, and newsstands.The decentralized nature of the internet makes it a much better way to distribute entertainment media, as that documentary that has a potential national (heck, worldwide) audience of half a million people could likely succeed if distributed online. The infrastructure for films isn't there yet, but it has been happening more in the digital music world, and even in a hybrid space like Amazon.com, which sells physical products, but in a non-local manner. With digital media, the cost of producing and distributing entertainment media goes way down, and thus even average artists can be considered successful, even if their sales don't approach that of the biggest sellers.
The internet isn't a broadcast medium; it is on-demand, driven by each individual's personal needs. Diversity is the key, and as Shirkey's article says: "Diversity plus freedom of choice creates inequality, and the greater the diversity, the more extreme the inequality." With respect to weblogs (or more generally, websites), big sites are, well, bigger, but links and traffic aren't the only metrics for success. Smaller websites are smaller in those terms, but are often more specialized, and thus they do better both in terms of connecting with their visitors (or customers) and in providing a more compelling value to their visitors. Larger sites, by virtue of their popularity, simply aren't able to interact with visitors as effectively. This is assuming, of course, that the smaller sites do a good job. My site is very small (in terms of traffic and links), but not very specialized, so it has somewhat limited appeal. However, the parts of my site that get the most traffic are the ones that are specialized (such as the Christmas Movies page, or the Asimov Guide). I think part of the reason the blog has never really caught on is that I cover a very wide range of topics, thus diluting the potential specialized value of any single topic.
The same can be said for online music sales. They still conform to a power law distribution, but what we're going to see is increasing sales of more diverse genres and bands. We're in the process of switching from a system in which only the top 20% are considered profitable, to one where 99% are valuable. This seems somewhat counterintuitive for a few reasons:
The first is we forget that the 20 percent rule in the entertainment industry is about hits, not sales of any sort. We're stuck in a hit-driven mindset - we think that if something isn't a hit, it won't make money and so won't return the cost of its production. We assume, in other words, that only hits deserve to exist. But Vann-Adib�, like executives at iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix, has discovered that the "misses" usually make money, too. And because there are so many more of them, that money can add up quickly to a huge new market.The need to figure out what people want out of a diverse pool of options is where self-organizing systems come into the picture. A good example is Amazon's recommendations engine, and their ability to aggregate various customer inputs into useful correlations. Their "customers who bought this item also bought" lists (and the litany of variations on that theme), more often than not, provide a way to traverse the long tail. They encourage customer participation, allowing customers to write reviews, select lists, and so on, providing feedback loops that improve the quality of recommendations. Note that none of these features was designed to directly sell more items. The focus was on allowing an efficient system of collaborative feedback. Good recommendations are an emergent result of that system. Similar features are available in the online music services, and the Wired article notes:
For instance, the front screen of Rhapsody features Britney Spears, unsurprisingly. Next to the listings of her work is a box of "similar artists." Among them is Pink. If you click on that and are pleased with what you hear, you may do the same for Pink's similar artists, which include No Doubt. And on No Doubt's page, the list includes a few "followers" and "influencers," the last of which includes the Selecter, a 1980s ska band from Coventry, England. In three clicks, Rhapsody may have enticed a Britney Spears fan to try an album that can hardly be found in a record store.Obviously, these systems aren't perfect. As I've mentioned before, a considerable amount of work needs to be done with respect to the aggregation and correlation aspects of these systems. Amazon and the online music services have a good start, and weblogs are trailing along behind them a bit, but the nature of self-organizing systems dictates that you don't get a perfect solution to start, but rather a steadily improving system. What's becoming clear, though, is that the little guys are (collectively speaking) just as important as the juggernauts, and that's why I'm not particularly upset that my blog won't be wildly popular anytime soon.
Posted by Mark on January 16, 2005 at 08:07 PM .: link :.
Sunday, January 09, 2005
State of the Blog
Yet another year has ended, and I've found that it is good to periodically step back and take a look at what I'm doing, why I'm doing it, and where I'm going from here. I've been blogging for over 4 years, but what I do now is much different than what I did when I started. About a year and a half ago, the blog wasn't doing well, so I changed some things. Things have progressed reasonably well since then, but there are a number of things I do (or don't do) that pretty much ensure that this won't become a huge blog. This doesn't particularly bother me, for reasons I'll get into later.
Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost has been posting about how to start a blog and how to make it successful:
I used to blog a lot more often than I do now. And more than that, I used to read a great deal of blogs, especially new blogs (or at least blogs that were new to me). Eventually this had the effect of inducing a sort of ADD in me. I consumed way too many things way too quickly and I became very judgemental and dismissive. There were so many blogs that I scanned (I couldn't actually read them, that would take too long for marginal gain) that this ADD began to spread across my life. I could no longer sit down and just read a book, even a novel.This is more difficult to diagnose than it sounds, but I've decided to curtail my blog reading in favor of activities which allow me to focus. I don't think this will change much, though. To a large extent, this is the sort of thing which has already shaped my blog to be what it is (warts and all, as described above), and I don't think it's going to change much. It's not the act of writing the blog which is the problem here, especially since I tend to write on more general subjects. This is more of a small calibration, along the lines of re-setting a clock when it begins to go awry (as even the best made clocks eventually do), than a major change (or defiant posturing).
In any case, this means that the blog will continue much the way it has, but that it won't become particularly successful anytime soon. As always, I hope to gain a few new readers here and there, and I see no reason why that couldn't happen. In a future post, I'll be talking about why I'm continuing despite my lack of ambition (which will, in turn, tie this post in with my recent posts regarding self-organization and the blogosphere).
Posted by Mark on January 09, 2005 at 08:33 PM .: link :.
Sunday, January 02, 2005
Everyone Contributes in Some Way
Epic : A fascinating and possibly prophetic flash film of things to come in terms of information aggregation, recommendations, and filtering. It focuses on Google and Microsoft's (along with a host of others, including Blogger, Amazon, and Friendster) competing contributions to the field. It's eight minutes long, and well worth the watch. It touches on many of the concepts I've been writing about here, including self-organization and stigmergy, but in my opinion it stops just short of where such a system would go.
It's certainly interesting, but I don't think it gets it quite right (Googlezon?). Or perhaps it does, but the pessimistic ending doesn't feel right to me. Towards the end, it claims that a comprehensive social dossier would be compiled by Googlezon (note the name on the ID - Winston Smith) and that everyone would receive customized newscasts which are completely automated. Unfortunately, they forsee majority of these customized newscasts as being rather substandard - filled with inaccuracies, narrow, shallow and sensational. To me, this sounds an awful lot like what we have now, but on a larger (and less manageable) scale. Talented editors, who can navagate, filter, and correlate Googlezon's contents, are able to produce something astounding, but the problem (as envisioned by this movie) is that far too few people have access to these editors.
But I think that misses the point. Individual editors would produce interesting results, but if the system were designed correctly, in a way that allowed everyone to be editors and a way to implement feedback loops (i.e. selection mechanisms), there's no reason a meta-editor couldn't produce something spectacular. Of course, there would need to be a period of adjustment, where the system gets lots of things wrong, but that's how selection works. In self-organizing systems, failure is important, and it ironically ensures progress. If too many people are getting bad information in 2014 (when the movie is set), all that means is that the selection process hasn't matured quite yet. I would say that things would improve considerably by 2020.
The film is quite worth a watch. I doubt this specific scenario will play out, but it's likely that something along these lines will occur. [Via the Commissar]
Posted by Mark on January 02, 2005 at 05:34 PM .: link :.
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This page contains entries posted to the Kaedrin Weblog in January 2005.
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