What is a Weblog?

Dave Winer provides a tutorial on what makes a weblog a weblog. “A weblog is a hierarchy of text, images, media objects and data, arranged chronologically, that can be viewed in an HTML browser…The center of the hierarchy, in some sense, is a sequence of weblog “posts” that forms the index of the weblog, that link to all the content in sequence.”

Content-related Advertising

The Economist has a story on online advertising and how it is working for both advertisers and consumers. After the search-related text ads and pay-for-performance pioneered by Google and Overture, the next horizon is advertising linked to the content of the page.

This is done by using software to boil text down to a handful of keywords and to serve up related ads next to it. Just as with search-based advertising, the idea is that surfers are more likely to click on ads relevant to a web page’s content than on a scattershot banner ad.

This time, Google was first. Since March, its ads have also been appearing on the pages of such websites as HowStuffWorks.com and Slashdot.org. Content targeting also explains why the firm recently acquired two start-ups, Applied Semantics and Pyra Labs. The first is a developer of content-targeting software; the second sells software to create personal web pages called web logs, or blogs, which could make excellent homes for Google’s ads.

4G

The Economist writes about the next-generation wireless networks:

What if you could combine Wi-Fi-style internet access with the blanket coverage, and fewer base-stations, of a mobile network? The various 4G technologies developed by such firms as IPWireless, Flarion, Navini, ArrayComm and Broadstorm offer just such a blend. There is no formal definition of 4G, but what such technologies have in common, says Andy Fuertes, an analyst at Visant Strategies, a research firm, is that they are high-speed wireless networks covering a wide area, designed above all for carrying data, rather than voice or a mixture of the two. They can pipe data to and from mobile devices at broadband speed, typically 10-20 times faster than a dial-up modem connection.

Such 4G wireless-broadband systems can be seen in two ways: as a rival to Wi-Fi that offers wider coverage, or as a wireless alternative to the cable and digital subscriber-line (DSL) technologies that now provide broadband access to homes and offices. Mostly, the wireless operators evaluating 4G see it as the first, and fixed-line telecoms operators as the second. But the convergence of wireless and broadband, argues Chris Gilbert of IPWireless, is actually entirely new: a fast internet connection that follows you around. Navini calls it nomadic broadband; ArrayComm’s term is personal broadband. Mike Gallagher of Flarion, a firm backed by Cisco, likens Wi-Fi to cordless phones that work within a limited range of a base-station, whereas 4G is akin to mobile phones that work anywhere.

IT Matters

David Kirkpatrick critiques the HBR article which asks “Does IT Matter?” by Nicholas Carr.

One of the article’s most glaring flaws is its complete disregard for the centrality of software. Any human knowledge or information can be mediated and managed by software. Charles Fitzgerald, Microsoft’s general manager for platform strategy, says that Carr doesn’t put enough emphasis on this, the “I” in IT. “We have definitely hit an inflection point where suddenly the least expensive technologies are the most powerful ones–like Intel’s microprocessors,” Fitzgerald says. “But the source of competitive advantage in business is what you do with the information that technology gives you access to. How do you apply that to some particular business problem?” To say IT doesn’t matter is tantamount to saying that companies have enough information about their operations, customers, and employees. I have never heard a company make such a claim.

Who cares about the hardware? Not, in general, the experts I contacted about Carr’s article. “We never actually needed IT–we only need its functions. Good technology should be as invisible and as cheap as possible,” says Joel Kurtzman, a top business strategist at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Paul Strassman, who has spent 42 years as a CIO–at General Foods, Xerox, the Pentagon, and most recently NASA–was more emphatic. “The hardware–the stuff everybody’s fascinated with–isn’t worth a damn,” he says. “It’s just disposable. Information technology today is a knowledge-capital issue. It’s basically a huge amount of labor and software.” Strassman was so distressed by Carr’s article that he sent HBR a six-page critique. Says he: “Look at the business powers–most of all Wal-Mart, but also companies like Pfizer or FedEx. They’re all waging information warfare.” Rob Carter, CIO of FedEx, declared himself “stunned” that anyone could think tech didn’t matter. “Everything strategic in the company has IT inputs into it,” he says. “I always annoy my team by telling them, ‘It’s the software, stupid.’ ”

Steve Jobs’ Innovations

Stewart Alsop lists the contributions amde by Steve Jobs: Apple II, Macintosh, Laser printers, Pixar, Industrial design, OS X, iLife, iPod, along with the iTunes Music Store. Says Alsop: “[Apple’s] financial results have been mediocre, and some people wonder whether it can keep moving ahead. Based on what I’ve seen Jobs do over the past 20 years, I’d have to say that the company will not only keep moving forward itself but also keep pushing the entire industry along.”

Programmable Web

Guardian writes about the third era – after static web pages and dynamic web pages.

The programmable web is different for two main reasons. First, instead of going to look at a web page, you can get a computer to extract the information for you. Second, you don’t have to view that information in a browser: you could use it in a different application, or on a different device, such as a mobile phone. When websites make information available in this way, they are called web services.

The important point is that you didn’t need to go to the web to get useful information from a website: the web is no longer just about “eyeballs,” it is also about computers talking directly to computers on your behalf. The corollary is that someone has to specify how all these applications talk to one another, and provide an applications programming interface (API). This tells you how to frame a request in order to get the right response.

Support for Open-Source

News.com writes about Indian President Abdul Kalam’s support for open-source software. Said Kalam in a speech recently: “The most unfortunate thing is that India still seems to believe in proprietary solutions. Further spread of IT which is influencing the daily life of individuals would have a devastating effect on the lives of society due to any small shift in the business practice involving these proprietory solutions. It is precisely for these reasons open source software need to be built which would be cost effective for the entire society. In India, open source code software will have to come and stay in a big way for the benefit of our billion people.”

In a related development (News.com), the Munich government is moving 14,000 computers from Windows to Linux, and from MS-Office to OpenOffice.

TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Small Worlds

The Memex is about connecting people, ideas and information. In a way, it creates a small world out of the unstructured content that is out there on the Web. Writes Duncan Watts is his book Small Worlds:

The small-world phenomenon formalises the anecdotal notion that you are only ever six degrees of separation away from anybody else on the planet. Almost everyone is familiar with the sensation of running into a complete stranger at a party or in some public arena and, after a short conversation, discovering that they know somebody unexpected in common. Well, its a small world, they exclaim. The small-world phenomenon is a generalised version of this experience, the claim that even when people do not have a friend in common, they are separated by only a short chain of intermediaries.

Adds Mark Buchanan in his book Nexus:

These small-world networks work magic. From a conceptual point of view, they reveal how it is possible to wire up a social world so as to get only six degrees of separation, while still permitting the richly clustered and intertwined social groups and communities that we see in the real world. Even a tiny fraction of weak links long-distance bridges within the social world has an immense influence on the number of degrees of separationThe long-distance social short-cuts that make the world small are mostly invisible in our ordinary social networks.

So, can this social networks truth be extended to ideas and memes using the Memex?

What the Memex does is create a small-world out of the content that is out there. So, in theory, a few clicks should be all that should be required to take us from one page to another. The invisible short-cuts are created by bloggers. Just as people have some weak ties which shorten the distance in the social world, blogs, because they represent peoples interests, also make connections through some weak ties to other blogs.

So, while my blog may cover mostly about new technologies and ideas relevant to emerging markets like India, I also write about a few other topics that are of interest to me like Memex or Entrepreneurship, for example. These are the weak ties that connect me to other people who would have probably been outside the gamut of the reading I would have done in the normal course of events. What the Memex does is make these weak ties visible.

The Memex makes it possible connect us to not just information and ideas, but ultimately to people. In the year-long existence of my blog, I have made many interactions with people I would probably have never interacted with otherwise. Blogging means putting in public a part of ones persona and brain. The Memex then makes the connections, making possible short-cuts through weak links to people (and memes) whom otherwise one could not have possibly not been aware of. The Memex makes the world smaller and more connected.

This is important because in a world of plentiful information, we need a refinery to convert the raw, unstructured content ores into the gold of Knowledge and Insight. This is ultimately the challenge and hidden promise of the Memex.

Next Week: Constructing the Memex (continued)

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Tech Slump Delays Innovations

WSJ writes:

The slow economy has again delayed the rollouts of new technology, risking future gains in output. Indeed, some promising developments may fall along the wayside.

Recent surveys of U.S. and European executives by Goldman Sachs Group and Gartner Inc. indicate that business spending on information technology will be flat to down slightly this year — on top of back-to-back declines the past two years. And spending on newer technologies will likely lag behind the eventual economic pickup, because such technologies are perceived as riskier, says Ram Bhagavatula, chief economist at Royal Bank of Scotland Financial Markets.

It is time to look at the emerging markets which are beginning to spend on technology as the drivers for new innovations.

Net Boom, Act II

Richard Karlgaard writes in Forbes: “Net Boom, Act II is just getting started. Behind the revival is an array of cheap stuff, such as wireless broadband, 120-gigabyte disk drives for $99 and mail-order “blade” servers that are as powerful as $250,000 Unix boxes. The second-order effect of all this cheap gear is rapid Net penetration into poorer countries like India and China, which are becoming vendors of even cheaper products and services.”

RSS’ Growing Importance

The RSS feed is growing in importance. Two recent comments are an indication of the attention being paid to the fact that RSS may become the new way to dissenimate information.

Writes Jon Udell:

Direct one-click access to RSS sources is suddenly a lot more interesting. It used to be that RSS aggregators were few. Now they are many — because every copy of Radio is one. The people running these aggregators can now start to trade channels as we used to trade links.

The benefits of this new RSS fluidity, which kicks things up a level of abstraction, seem obvious to me, and will seem obvious to anyone who finds their way here to read this. But those benefits will not be obvious to most people. Casual use of ordinary links is still not nearly as prevalent in routine business and personal communication as it ought to be. The kind of meta-linking possible with channel exchange will seem even more exotic. The challenge — and opportunity — is to make all this as easy and natural as most people think email is.

Adds Tim Bray:

Eventually there will be business models built around weblogs, with more popular ones being more lucrative. And while the Pagerank-style ratings produced by Technorati, Daypop and so on are important, the big question is going to become: how many subscribers do you have?

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Blogosphere Dynamics

Mark McLuhan: “Blogs that come to be noticed are those which are cited, that is linked-to, interestingly mirroring the best academic tradition. This is the highest form of editorial oversight – peer review. Those bloggers who establish a reputation for themselves by virtue of their insight, wittiness and general wisdom gain attention, which, after all, is the most valuable commodity in a world of instantaneous communications. The community edits itself; those whose contributions merit mass distribution via the unique dynamic of the blogosphere will see such distribution. Those whose contribution remains in the realm of navel-gazing and news-about-their-cat will be ‘modded down’ in the best tradition of Slashdot, a site whose membership dynamics is a major archetype for community moderation.”

Mark also points to a story on Microdocs and says:

How does a story hit the big-time, and why aren’t I famous yet? The most interesting comment in the article is the conclusion: “Blogs cannot be read in isolation from each other. Blog stories are understood and appreciated in aggregate and not in isolation. On the other hand, mainstream media stories tend to be read in isolation rather than read and compared. This is the key to understanding why blogs provide the most appropriate form of journalism in a world of instantaneous communications, and the fundamental difference between conventional mass-media and a journalism formed of connectedness.

Blogs are part of an ecosystem, just like conversations. There is a symbiotic relationships between bloggers themsevles, and blogs and mainstream media.

Hyderabad Visit

Atanu “RISC” Dey and I spent the past couple days in Hyderababd meeting with various people to discuss rural development. Travelling and talking to people is a great way to think. I am understanding RISC better now. When we meet people, the initial reaction is normally, “Oh, its all been tried and done before.” It is interesting to watch this change from “Hmm, this seems different” and finally to “But what if others start copying it everywhere”. As we travelled, I got a good primer from Atanu on Economics, Game Theory and Rural Development.

Hyderabad is not a city I have visited often – this visit came after nearly 2 years. I remember going there in the early 1990s to the various R&D centres trying to (unsuccessfully) sell the image processing solution we had developed. A lot has changed in the city since then thanks to Chandrababu Naidu. It is a very clean city. The roads are nice and wide. The lake adds to the charm.

Travelling gives one time to think and contemplate. As one sees things around, linkages and connections start happening and images start forming, and the ideas get amplified. That is why it is so important to get out of the confines of the office every once in a while.

On the way to Hyderabad, we looked down from the aircraft window on the Indian countryside. We weren’t flying that high and it was a clear day. I was trying to see the villages and their distribution, and imagining where we could set up the RISC centres. Reminded me a bit of how Sam Walton must have felt as he overflow rural America trying to decide where to locate the Walmarts.

TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Emergence

What is most interesting about the Memex is that it is an emergent system made up of local decisions made by a large number of individuals. Each of us is just going about our normal course of (blogging) life making decisions on what content we like, whom to link to, what taxonomy to use for our personal directory, and so on. But out of these local decisions comes a bottom-up system that is beyond what a Yahoo or Google can ever hope of creating both because it cannot be cached and because it is continually evolving.

Writes Steven Johnson in his book Emergence: If youre building a system designed to learn from the ground, a system where macrointelligence and adaptability derive from local knowledge,there are five fundamental principles you need to follow. Steven Johnson discusses the principles in the context of harvester ants. We will apply these principles in the context of the Memex.

The first principle is: More is different. It is only by observing the entire system that the global behavior becomes apparent. Individuals (think bloggers) do not know the big picture as they keep doing their routine of linking, commenting and outlining it is as if they are working at the street level, with little understanding of the topology of the city.

The second principle is: Ignorance is useful. Better to build a densely interconnected system with simple elements, and let the more sophisticated behavior trickle up. Bloggers do their bit in terms of the simple acts of categorising and connecting, without resort of any complex algorithms or top-down instructions.

The third principle is: Encourage random encounters. These encounters are individually arbitrary, but because there are so many individuals in the system, they allow the individuals to gauge and alter the macrostate of the system itself. In the world of bloggers, this translates to the people or content they connect to via search engines or the ones who land up at the blogs. This is over and beyond the ones that are friends or friends of friends. This opens up new content worlds and ideas.

The fourth principle is: Look for patterns in the signs. Just as ants look for patterns in pheromone secretions, bloggers can look for patterns in sites like Blogdex and Daypop, which provide an idea of the popular memes. Technoratis links to new and promising bloggers is another example. This knack for pattern detection allows metainformation to circulate through the mind: signs about signs.

The fifth principle is: Pay attention to your neighbours. Local information can lead to global wisdom. Bloggers are not putting up a random collection of links, they are basing their decisions on what their neighbourhood does. This provides a feedback mechanism into the system.

Thus, local decisions made by bloggers is what enables the formation of the global Memex. This is emergence at work.

Tomorrow: Small Worlds

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TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Of Stigmergy and Memes (Part 2)

Joe Gregorios then connects the threads of the Web, Blogs, Google, Neighbourhoods, Memes and Stigmergy together:

The World-Wide Web is the first stigmeric communication medium for humans. The telephone and email don’t count as stigmeric communication since they are only readable by the people on either end of the phone call, or the e-mail. In order for an environment to support stigmeric communication the messages must be readable by everyone. Radio and TV don’t count since they are a read-only medium as far as most people are concerned. In order for an environment to support stigmery everyone has to be able to not only read it but to be able to write into it also.

Oh sure, we have had books and newspapers, but for the vast majority of people the only avenue they have to ‘write-back’ into that environment is in the ‘letter-to-the-editors’ department. Now we have Yahoo Groups, K5, Slashdot and weblogs. All avenues for anyone to enter into the conversation.
Now that we know web is a stigmeric communication medium and that we’ve seen some of the power that nature has gotten out of stigmergy the answers to our earlier questions become rather easy.

Why does communicating through a weblog work? Stigmergy. Using a weblog is communicating through stigmergy. Just like an ant, as I blog I leave a trail of information and links to other information I find interesting.

Why is Google’s PageRank algorithm so good? It is just following the Ant Trails. If links represent a dropping of pheromone then Google is just following the trails laid down to the tastiest morsels.

Why do Neighborhoods form? Ant Corpse Piles. Just like Ant Corpse Piles, if I link to you and you link to me that brings our weblogs closer together. The more we talk about similar stuff the more likely we are to cross link to each other. The more links to each other and the more links from us to similar material on the web the closely Google thinks we are related. The habit of ‘welcoming’ new bloggers with similar interests by linking to their site with a welcome message only grows the pile.

Why do memes spread so effectively on the web? Stigmergy. Because they are travelling through a stigmeric medium. They can live on the internet where anyone can find them either intentionally, by using Google to follow the trail, or serendipitously by the idea moving into a receptive neighborhood.

Joe concludes: The World-Wide Web is human stigmergy. The web and it’s ability to let anyone read anything and also to write back to that environment allows stigmeric communication between humans. Some of the most powerful forces on the web today, Google and weblogs are fundamentally driven by stigmeric communication and their behaviour follows similar natural systems like Ant Trails and Nest Building that are accomplished using stigmergy.

What Joe left unsaid and what Mike did is make the connection between Stigmery and the Memex, an emergent system for information management based on the individual, collective efforts of all of us.

Tomorrow: Emergence

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Information Overload

Slashdot discusses “information obesity” as discussed in this SMH article: “Another day in the office, which, according to one recent study, consists of handling 46 phone calls, 25 emails, 16 voicemails, 23 items of post, eight inter-office memos, 16 faxes and nine mobile phone calls. While that sounds scary, its even more alarming to think that those figures – taken from a 2000 survey of companies employing between 100 and 499 staff conducted by Pitney Bowes in partnership with the US-based forecaster the Institute for the Future – are likely to have risen.” Scary! And an opportunity for things like Info Aggregators and Digital Dashboards – what we need is “Topsight”.

Sleeping

Sleeping is a universal love. Its also something most of us get less of. In my case, my sleep hours are inversely proportional to how excited I am about what I am doing. A year or so ago, I was sleeping 7-8 hours daily, finding it hard to wake up even at 7:30 am. Then, I started the daily walk – with a friend. That meant a hard deadline on the waking time. I also linked it up with wanting to listen to BBC World News at 5:30 am. Emergic too started and over the past year my sleep has averaged about 6-7 hours at night. The one thing I love is a 2-hour nap on Sunday afternoons. It is not something that happens every Sunday, though!

Countering Spam

NYTimes has conversations with seven people who have come up with ideas for a solution to “unclogging the information artery.”

Esther Dyson: The model I like is the set-your-own-price-to-receive-mail model. Each person decides whether it costs 50 cents or $1 or whatever to send him or her mail. You charge only for mail you don’t already know that you want. The magic of it is, people can really define their own terms. You want to build a system that lets the person you met at a party try you once. In an ideal world, the people you charge drop away, and you only get mail from the people you know and want to hear from.

Microsoft: Our proposal is to allow commercial senders to participate in a self-regulatory program that would provide a seal if they followed a set of best practices. The filters would take participation in such a program as an input.

EarthLink: we will introduce Spam Blocker, which augments what we have done with filtering. Users only see messages in their in-boxes from people in their address books. If you send me an e-mail for the first time, your message goes into my “suspect” mailbox. The system generates a message back to the sender, who is referred to a Web page, where it is necessary to fill in some information, including copying a number from an image that a machine could not read. Then I will see that you want to send me mail, and I can refuse or say O.K. Mail sent by automated e-mail generating programs will never get through.

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TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Of Stigmergy and Memes

It was one of these serendipitous discoveries that led me to a note by Joe Gregorio on Stigmergy. I was following a link from a Mike Bedan post on Memex. Mikes blog had shown up tops in a search I had on Google for Memex RSS Blogs OPML. I had put that combination of words in Google after many previous efforts. (One of my posts shows up tops in the search on Google.) Hopefully, it is this accidental discovery and click-and-try process tha the Memex will hopefully address!

Back to Stigmergy and Joe Gregorio. Joe quotes E. Bonabeau, M. Dorigo, and G. Theraulaz in giving a definition of Stigmergy: Self-Organization in social insects often requires interactions among insects: such interactions can be direct or indirect. Direct interactions are the “obvious” interactions: antennation, trophallaxis (food or liquid exchange), mandibular contact, visual contact, chemical contact (the odor of nearby nestmates), etc. Indirect interactions are more subtle: two individuals interact indirectly when one of then modifies the environment and the other responds to the new environment at a later time. Such an interaction is an example of stigmergy.

While Joe does not explicitly talk about the Memex (the connection between Stigmergy and the Memex was made by Mike Bedan), he does talk of Weblogs, Neighbourhoods, and Google. And Memes. No, thats not a typo. Memes are, according to Joe, a unit of intellectual or cultural information that survives long enough to be recognized as such, and which can pass from mind to mind. They can be carried by word of mouth, dead trees, e-mail, or the web. On the web, in particular on weblogs, memes are tracked by links to particular sites or stories. In other words, Memes are mind viruses.

A small diversion as we elaborate a little on Memes. To quote Richard Dawkins: Memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the memes propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.

Not only is the word Meme very similar to the Memex that we are talking of constructing, Memes are what a lot of our ideas are about. When we interact with each other, we are transmitting our ideas and thoughts. These stick and grow. This is, in some ways, how writing happens. And as we read what others write, memes are transmitted. What weblogs do is enable the transmission of memes without the need for direct contact. In a way, they provide the shortcuts for meme propagation. And this is a key concept of the Small Worlds theory as articulated by Duncan Watts, which we will consider shortly. For now, suffice to say, that our personal Memex in the form of blogs and personal directories work as meme propagating vehicles.

Tomorrow: Of Stigmergy and Memes (continued)

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Info Aggregator

For the past month or so, I have been reading blog posts in my mailbox. We wrote a software that (we’ve called it Info Aggregator – here is where you can try it out for now). Its been a great experience. I have been exposed to a much wider set of bloggers. I have 60+ subscriptions. The software gets the RSS feeds and puts the items into an IMAP mailbox which one can add to one’s email client. No need for a separate news aggregator. Hoping to launch it into a full-fledged service soon.

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