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Sunday, June 26, 2005

Bookmark Aggregation
This is hardly new, but since I've often observed the need for better information aggregation tools I figured I'd give del.icio.us a plug. del.icio.us is essentially an online bookmark (or favorites, in IE-speak) repository. It allows you to post sites to your own personal collection of links. This is great for those who frequently access the internet from multiple locations and different browsers (i.e. from work and home) as it is always accessible on the web. But the really powerful thing about del.icio.us is that everyone's bookmarks are public and easily viewable, and there are all sorts of ways to aggregate and correllate bookmarks. They like to call the system a social bookmarks manager.

The system uses a tagging scheme (or flat hierarchy, if you prefer) to organize links. In the context of a system like del.icio.us, tagging essentially means that for each bookmark you add, you choose a number of labels or categories (tags) which are used to organize your bookmarks so you can find them later. Again, since del.icio.us is a public system, you can see what other people are posting to the same tags. This becomes a good way to keep up on a particular topic (for example, CSS, the economy, movies, tacos or cheese). Jon Udell speculates that posted links would follow a power law distribution, where a few individuals really stand out as the most reliable contributors of valuable links for a given topic. Unfortunately, del.icio.us isn't particularly great at sorting that out yet (though you may be able to notice such patterns emerging if you really keep up on a topic and who is posting what, which can be somewhat daunting for popular tags like CSS, but perhaps not so for something more obscure like unicode). Udell also notes how useful tagging is when trying to organize something that you think will be useful in the future.

Tagging is a concept whose time has come, and despite its drawbacks, I have a feeling that 10 years from now, we're all going to look back and wonder how the heck we accomplished anything before something like tagging rolled around. del.icio.us certainly isn't the only site using tagging (Flickr has tagged photos, Technorati uses tags for blog posts, and there are several other sites). Of course, the concept does have its problems; namely, how do you know which tags to use? For instance, one of the more popular general subjects on del.icio.us is blogs and blogging, but what tags should be used? Blog, Blogging, Blogs, Weblog, Weblogs, blogosphere and so on... Luckily del.icio.us is getting better and better at this - their "experimental post" works wonders because it is actually able to recommend tags you should use based on what tags other people have used.

The system is actually quite simple and easy to use, but there's not much in the way of documentation. Check out this blog post or John Udell's screencast for some quick tutorials on how to get started. I've been playing around with it more and more, and it's proving very useful on multiple levels (organizing links I come across as well as finding new links in the first place!). If you're interested, you can check out my bookmarks. Some other interesting functionality:
  • Every page you view on del.icio.us has an RSS feed, so you can subscribe to feeds you like and read them along with your favorite news sites, blogs, &c.
  • One interesting thing you can do with tags is to create a continually updated set of links directed at one specific person. For instance, let's say I'm always finding links that I think my brother would enjoy. I can bookmark them with the tag "attn: goober" and send him the link, which will always be updated with the latest links I've sent him (and he could subscribe to the RSS for that page too).
  • del.icio.us/popular/ shows the pages that are being bookmarked most frequently - a good way to keep up with the leading edge. You can also add a tag to see only popular items for that tag. For example, to keep up with the most popular links about blogs, you could try del.icio.us/popular/blogs.
  • There's a lot of integration with Mozilla/Firefox, which is one reason for the service's popularity.
  • There also appears to be a lot of development that leverages del.icio.us data for other uses or in other applications.
  • del.icio.us picks your nose for you! Ok, er, it doesn't actually do that (and um, even if it did, would anyone use that feature?), but it does lots of other things too. Go sign up and check it out.
Again, it's a very useful site once you figure out what you're doing, and I have a few ideas that might show up on the blog (eventually). It should be particularly useful when I attempt to do something like this or this again. The system is far from perfect, and it's difficult to tell where some of the driving concepts are really going, but it certainly seems like there's something interesting and very useful going on here.

The important thing about del.icio.us is not that it was designed to create the perfect information resource, but rather an efficient system of collaboration. It's a systemic improvement; as such, the improvement in information output is an emergent property of internet use. Syndication, aggregation, and filtering on the internet still need to improve considerably, but this seems like a step in the right direction.
Posted by Mark on June 26, 2005 at 08:30 PM .: link :.



Sunday, June 19, 2005

Veg Out
Neal Stephenson's take on Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith in the New York times is interesting on a few levels. He makes some common observations, such as the prevalence of geeky details in supplementary material of the Star Wars universe (such as the Clone Wars cartoons or books), but the real gem is his explanation for why the geeky stuff is mostly absent from the film:
Modern English has given us two terms we need to explain this phenomenon: "geeking out" and "vegging out." To geek out on something means to immerse yourself in its details to an extent that is distinctly abnormal - and to have a good time doing it. To veg out, by contrast, means to enter a passive state and allow sounds and images to wash over you without troubling yourself too much about what it all means.
Stephenson says the original Star Wars is a mixture of veg and geek scenes, while the new movies are almost all veg out material. The passive vegging out he describes is exactly how I think of the prequels (except that Episode III seems to have a couple of non-veg out scenes, which is one of the reasons I think it fares better than the other prequels). He also makes a nice comparison to the business world, but then takes a sudden sort of indirect dive towards outsourcing and pessimism at the end of the article, making a vague reference to going "the way of the old Republic."

I'm not sure I agree with those last few paragraphs. I see the point, but it's presented as a given. Many have noted Stephenson could use a good editor for his recent novels, and it looks to me like Stephenson was either intentionally trying to keep it short (it's only two pages - not what you'd expect from someone who routinely writes 900 page books, including three that are essentially a single 2700 page novel) or his article was edited down to fit somewhere. In either case, I'm sure he could have expounded upon those last paragraphs to the tune of a few thousand words, but that's what I like about the guy. Not that the article is bad, but I prefer Stephenson's longwinded style. Ironically, Stephenson has left the details out of his article; it reads more like a power-point presentation that summarizes the bullet points of his argument than the sort of in-depth analysis I'm used to from Stephenson. As such, I'm sure there are a lot of people who would take issue with some of his premises. Perhaps it's an intentional irony, or (more likely) I'm reading too much into it.
Posted by Mark on June 19, 2005 at 10:19 AM .: link :.



Monday, June 13, 2005

Guns and Pools
Kevin Baker posts a newspaper headline which demonstrates one of the points I made in Sharks, Deer, and Risk: "A child is 100 times more likely to drown in a pool than be killed by a gun." Kevin looked at the numbers a bit closer and came to the conclusion that the ratio is more like 175:1, but in either case, it demonstrates the point about percieved risks versus actual risks made in my post.
Posted by Mark on June 13, 2005 at 02:10 PM .: link :.



Thursday, June 09, 2005

Turning to the Dark Side
It's difficult to describe the feelings the original Star Wars trilogy stirred in me as a child (though I suspect many of my generation are familiar with those feelings). When I watch them again, even today, I still get that feeling. I think at least part of it was that I didn't fully understand the story as a child. It was a visceral story, so on a raw emotional level, I got it, even if I wasn't able to articulate an intellectual response. As I've grown older, repeated watchings have only increased my appreciation.

Warning! Spoilers Ahead...

One thing I've felt has always been particularly effective was how the films treated the Force. The Force consists of two opposing sides, a Dark Side and a Light Side. Neither side is made up of specific "abilities" of the Force - it is the way in which these abilities are used that is important. Acting on positive emotions like love, compassion, and courage is the path of the Light Side, while fear, attachment, and hatred are the way of the Dark Side. Practitioners of the Light Side suppress their negative emotions while nurturing their positive emotions to help others. Devotees to the Dark Side use their negative emotions to fuel their selfish power and are thus able to increase their outward strength and abilities. As a result, the Dark Side of the Force is extremely seductive. Each time one calls on the power of the Dark Side, they become more attached to it. It becomes an addiction which feeds upon itself.

This process of turning to the Dark Side was handled exceptionally well in the original trilogy. The entire Star Wars story centers around two people: Darth Vader, who has turned to the Dark Side, never to look back, and Luke Skywalker, who has only begun his journey, his fate uncertain. Knowing Luke's sensitive state, Vader attempts to seduce Luke to the Dark Side, and for a time, he is successful. Despite Obi Wan and Yoda's teachings, Luke failed at the cave on Dagobah and when he sees that his friends are in danger, he rushes off to confront Vader, where he fails again. Luke was acting on his attachment to his friends, and his hatred for Vader. In the end, Luke was able to see the error in his ways and he eventually succeeded because of the love and trust he gave his father, redeeming him and saving them both from the Emperor.

So the original trilogy told the tale of a young Jedi who was tempted by the Dark Side, but persevered because of his devotion to the Light Side. The prequels tell the story of Anakin Skywalker, a young Jedi who was tempted and ultimately seduced by the Dark Side. Judging from the response to Episode III, it seems that the way Anakin's turn is portrayed is the most frequently cited problem with the film. And I have to admit, there is some truth to that.

First, when Lucas introduced the concept of Midichlorians, he completely demystified the Force. Part of the reason the Dark side was so scary in the original films was that one wrong turn could inexorably lead you down the path to the Dark side. It was a vaguely mysterious process, and not knowing exactly how the Force worked only served to make it more effective. Second, the first two prequels were pretty much a waste. One of my initial thoughts upon seeing Episode III was that it made the first two prequels better. But it really shouldn't be that way. The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones should have made Revenge of the Sith better, not the other way around.

To me, all the pieces were there, they just weren't integrated all that well. In Episode I, we see hints of Anakin's fear and anger, and in Episode II, we see some of that bloom into what I consider to be the beginning of Anakin's descent to the Dark side. When his mother dies and he slaughters that camp of sand people, he began on the path to the Dark side. At that point, he hadn't gone very far (just as Luke's failures in Empire didn't turn him completely), but it was a start. Yet very little is made of this in the films. In the opening of Episode III, Anakin strikes down a defenseless Count Dooku at the behest of Palpatine. I would have thought that was another big step in the wrong direction, but nothing much is made of it in the movie either. Instead, the film relies upon vague (but reasonably well done) political intrigue and the impending death of Padme as the only real motivators to turn to the Dark side. Furthermore, they're both shown as occurring in parallel. One didn't really build off the other, as you would expect in a turning to the Dark side process. Both are good reasons, to be sure, but when the time came and Anakin made his decision, it came off as muddled, especially given the near immediate reversal in direction that the scene implies. The fact that I described it as a "decision" should set off alarms here - turning to the Dark side isn't a decision, it's a process. A mystical, seductive process that doesn't just happen the way it did in the film.

There's a lot more too Anakin's turn to the Dark side, and one could argue that all sorts of things shown in the prequels contributed, but Lucas doesn't tie any of it together in an especially convincing way. I've always thought of turning to the Dark side as being a long process, starting with small, seemingly innocuous events, but eventually snowballing into an unstoppable downward spiral.

All of that said, I still enjoyed Revenge of the Sith, perhaps a bit more than it really deserves. In the end, it's a Star Wars film, and as such, it pulls from a rather large reservoir of movie-going goodwill. The test of time will most likely relegate the prequels to a supporting role in the Star Wars pantheon. The original trilogy still stands as a brilliant piece of work, and while it's a shame the prequels didn't quite live up to that standard, it's hard to believe that anything really could...

Note: I'll be travelling this weekend, so no new entry on Sunday.
Posted by Mark on June 09, 2005 at 10:48 AM .: link :.



Sunday, June 05, 2005

Link Dump
Time is short this week, so I'll just have to rely on my army of chain smoking monkey researchers for a few links:
  • The Singularity: Vernor Vinge's take on the Singularity. He predicts that we'll have the technology to create a super-human intelligence within 30 years, and that once the transition is made, " the human era will be ended." The concept has been around a while (and Vinge has written a pair of novels focusing on those ideas, amongst other things) and this 1993 essay is a good introduction.
  • A Gamer's Manifesto: David Wong and Haimoimoi deliver a hearth breaking list of things gamers really want out of their games. Astute readers may remember Wong's brilliant Ultimate War Sim. The manifesto isn't quite as funny, but it does nail the frustrating things about gaming right on the head. And, of course, with all the calls for better AI, they're just begging for the Singularity...
  • Interview with Umberto Eco in the Telegraph: The topics include a comparison of Foucault's Pendulum and The Da Vinci Code (big difference) and whether Eco is the Italian Salman Rushdie (no). Interestingly enough, before I knew what the Singularity was, I had thought that "Abufalafia" (the allegedly "incredible" computer from Eco's Foucault's Pendulum) would comprise of just such an intelligence. Alas, once I read the book, I realized it was not to be... [via Johno at The Ministry of Minor Perfidy]
  • Zak Smith�s Illustrations For Each Page of Gravity�s Rainbow: "The Modern Word hosts a staggering 755 illustrations by New York based artist, Zak Smith, depicting the events and imagery of Pynchon�s magnum opus." Some interesting stuff there... I'll have to add a link to my review. [via William Pittsburg, who apparently wrote the introduction and coded the pages]
That's all for now, perhaps more early in the week...

Update: Added another link and some text...
Posted by Mark on June 05, 2005 at 09:57 PM .: link :.



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