Patterns in static

Some fluff, some info

navigational aids:

topics covered:

16 September 03. Today I am a blog.

Hurricane Isabelle has introduced itself with a drizzle of rain and wind. I've so far staved off the desire to put So Central Rain on repeat. In grade school, fourth I think, we learned that hurricanes are no longer named exclusively after women, because feminists were bothered by the characterization as tempestuous and destructive. The girls in the class were all unanimous that they liked the idea of girl hurricanes, because they're strong and assertive. [They alternate boy and girl names now, in case ya didn't know, and annually alternate between two lists, one with boy name first and one with girl name first.]

I hope I'm keeping the proper blog tone here... From's list of fifty most unsexy things: ``9. Livejournal. How I'm feeling: bored. Song stuck in my head: "Raspberry Beret." Air of mystery that once surrounded me: gone.''

I was really into Carl Steadman, a sort of internet pioneer and the guy who runs Plastic. I really felt for him after reading his autobiography in this Wired article, and could relate to the leitmotiv `Carl is tired.' Kid A in Alphabetland is everything a work of art should be. [I've found conflicting sources on whether Radiohead stole the title from Carl or not.] But then I read his blog, which is exceptionally histrionic. Air of mystery surrounding Carl: gone.

Tom the dancing bug, 6 Sept 2003

Our motivations for blogging are twofold. First, there's the pleasant ego boost of having random 14-yr olds who found you on Google write to you to tell you that they read what you wrote and now they like you. Also, I have a chance to shill books and try to leech a bit more of an Amazon commission out of people. Got a book/DVD/toy you want? I'll give you a dollar if you write me with the item name and then buy it from my link.

Re: comments. The blog form mandates that there be a mechanism by which readers can contact the author. Well, dear reader, I'm not gonna invest time in putting together Php forms and such for comments until I feel this is useful; instead you just have the cute little animated gif to the left. If you write interesting things about the content here, I'll post your comments (whether you like it or not).

[link][no comments]

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

28 October 03. Internet as television

Television is a medium whereby data is sent from a few central points to a multitude of receiving machines. The reader may judge for him/her/itself, but people on the receiving side are often characterized as passive, mindless consumers.

The internet is a set of computers which use a standardized communication method to exchange data. Any computer on the network can address every other computer, and serve or receive data with its peers. There are some standards as to how that data gets shunted around, but the flow of data is basically arbitrary.

Now, the reader's experience with the internet is probably more like the definition of television than the definition of internet. You go to a website like or or and information is beamed in to your house, and you consume that information. Oh, you can use the Net like the mail to send one-to-one emails, and many web sites do have interactive details such as the `add to cart' button, but the flow of information is basically one way.

There are many forces out there trying to keep it as much like TV as possible. The majority of digital-protection schemes which protect the members of the RIAA and the MPAA will have the side-effect of making the Net more like TV. For example, the peer-to-peer networks that we read about in the news every day exactly fit the internet definition above. A site such as, where you can download music that they put out for you, is a closer fit to the above definition of television.

But I digress. In Internetland, everybody can be a content provider to everybody else. Those who think this is how it should be can all have a blog.

Within the grand scheme of human history, this is new.

Nice, democratic people that we are, we like to think that everybody should have a voice, all the time. But that one isn't entirely obvious. It's like libertarianism: hoardes of free marketeers insist that the world would be a better place with zero regulation, but such a state has never, ever existed. [As a reply, a few thousand libertarians are trying to make one.] Equal access to public media has also never existed.

And the truth is, that if you give everybody a chance to talk, most of them will, indeed, talk about the completely banal, idiotic, or vaguely offensive. [I'd give examples, but how to cull it down?] So you get people who complain about the bloggers, saying that the Net is filled with blog noise from self-appointed experts such as this arse.

But people are really good at filtering dumb content. Yeah, they still think Fox News is Fair and Balanced (tm), but I expect that even that facade has been cracked, as they keep suing other content providers who parody them, such as Fox Broadcasting. [Ex post note: this lawsuit was just a joke by Matt Groening. But I'm leaving the darn links.] Or to give an example on the other end of the production spectrum, most people, when happening upon a Chick publication lying around, will successfully gather the clues and work out that this is the work of a crackpot.

Despite the innovative features, online readily follows traditional media this way. I have full faith in the abilities of those who stumble upon this to realize that even though I'm a world authority on the application of Bayesian updating to models of simultaneous conviviality, that doesn't give me the slightest license to blather endlessly on why Jack Snow is annoying.

More meta: With that in mind, I've submitted the site to Google, which I count as the blog going live, as complete strangers will now stumble upon this work and be forced to work out whether it's worth reading or not. We'll see where it goes. [By its own purchases, Google seems OK with blogs, by the way.]

I have to admit that most of what I look for in web sites myself is the TV-like sort of thing, wherein I watch words come up and look at them while I'm eating. Y'know, sentences that you don't have to read all the way through because you have something to click on in the middle of each of them. I guess that's what I'm providing, and that's OK.

Despite my lack of authority, you're hopefully finding some entertainment value in these pontifications. One reader suggested that I shoot for something more personal and less beat-you-about-the-head-and-neck witty, but it's sorta hard to put personal content here. A simple `I still think about `Lissa Tom a lot' would probably deeply disturb some subset of the world's population. I certainly don't want to end up like these characters.

Oh, and while we're on the subject of this document, the reader will note that I'm only updating on even-numbered days, thus saving the reader the endless torment of hitting over and over again on at least the odd-numbered days. See, I really do care.

[link][no comments]

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

06 January 04. Really, why I blog

This is actually the third time I've tried writing this `why I write didactic essays' essay. I think I'm afraid of inspecting my actual motivations too closely. On the one hand, a didactic essay places the author above the reader, in a `look what I know and you don't' kind of way. On the other hand, if the essay is effective, the author and reader are on an even footing at the end of the essay, since both now have equal ownership of the content. A hard call there.

Being useful has always been a concern of mine. The world has put a whole heap of effort and NSF funds in to me, and I don't really feel that I ever really repaid it, in an amorphous, collective sense. By the usual measure of being useful, i.e., getting paid, I'm a good negative $960/month right now.

I've sent a book proposal to (name of publisher). They should get back to me this week, maybe. I'm gonna be heartbroken if it's not accepted.

Anyway, when people go to a movie, I always ask them to take notes and act it out for me when they get back. This is not a dumb joke: I would be delighted if anybody did this. E.g., Miss JAM of Alexandria, VA gave me a detailed play-by-play of the musical `Wicked', including brief musical figures, and I was delighted. Not only did I get the content of the story, which I wouldn't have had the attention span to sit through, I also got to enjoy the affective fun of having a pal tell the story instead of watching attractive strangers from New York acting the thing out. Similarly with seminars: I'd always try to get the executive summary from pals who'd gone, and would always volunteer to give the executive summary for those seminars I'd attended.

In other regards, this has always been sort of my ideal manner of transferring information: struggling with primary sources or textbooks, and then telling pals all about it. It's efficient and fun, when everybody is willing to play along; it also either appeases my desperate desire not to be beneath others (like my professors) or my desperate desire for an egalitarian society (among my peers).

Conversely, my brain is filled with heaps upon heaps of useless information, and something about explaining it to a pal makes it feel less useless when they agree that it's interesting and useful. For those few moments when we sit in mutual admiration of a fact about the world, my life of collecting dumb information doesn't feel like a complete waste.

I attempted to explain one of my favorite facts, the Central Limit Theorem, to Miss STA of Prague, Czech Republic, and she was actively not interested. I almost cried.

[link][no comments]

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

22 April 04. RSS and objects

public This guy makes a brilliant point about magazine articles: "I had begun to notice that people refer to a magazine article by mentioning the magazine, not the author, but with a book they typically don't remember the publisher, but only the author[...]." In this context (but another post) the guy explains why RSS saves us: it lets us pick authors that we like and design a nameless, virtual newspaper/magazine which is entirely by the people we are most interested in. Our virtual magazine can even have lots of comics (see the links page) and Dave Barry. It gives me that 90's optimism that yes, the Web really can revolutionize publishing and information dissemination.

Remember the `zine revolution, where a collection of a few people printed stuff up and made their pals read it and also left it at the bookstore hoping that a few strangers would also read a few pages? There's blogging with RSS for ya.

private So I myself have now been using an RSS reader for a little over a week. The results? My apartment is much cleaner, and I have no dishes lingering in the sink. I think I'm like a lot of people in that I guide my life based on the item on my `to do' list that is the least onerous at the moment. This had meant hitting <F5> on Paul's blog and seeing if he's said anything in the last five minutes, but now that's entirely obsolete, since the RSS reader does that automatically. As much as I love chycks in eyeliner, even that site from a few days ago has become onerous.

In fact, generally, looking for new content is among the most onerous things I can think of. As much as I may give the impression otherwise, I hate clicking on things and hoping they'll turn up something good; I really do think 90% of the content online is crap; and buying stuff online is so painful at this point that I'd rather go without than suffer the requisite half an hour of aimless clicking that goes into buying anything with plastic or silicon parts.

And so, having barred the joy of <F5>-ing the sites I really do like, I'm down to sweeping my floor and doing dishes. I guess it's sort of a geek thing to do, to automate and make efficient your downtime (here's a great example).

Oh, and I also read the NYT and the Economist more, since they now push themselves to me rather than requiring that I click on a link. I am thus notified within half an hour any time a U.S. serviceman dies in Iraq.

virtual I bought a big pile of records the other day. I'm increasingly feeling what the luddites of old said about CDs: they're just not fun compared to records. There's no tactile joy, nothing to do with your hands or your eyes. The little CD booklet really doesn't compare to the big square sleeve that hipsters have lately taken to framing and hanging on the wall. There's no ritual to putting a CD in the little motorized tray. As previously noted, if you have to get up every twenty minutes to flip the darn record, you're more likely to listen compared to just putting on a playlist in the background.

To go even further, walking through Chinatown in Manhattan a month or two ago, I happened upon a pile of 78 RPM records, from circa 1915-1925. They do indeed put the records of the 80s to shame: these things don't wobble or bend, and they weigh something substantial. They feel good to hold. These 78s are vaguely Jewish in nature, like Cohen calls his tailor on the 'Phone (comedy monologue, it says) and the Yiddisher klezmer orchestra. I wish I coud hear them.

I was raised more on CDs, though, so the step from CDs to MP3s on a hard drive was a trivial one, since pushing little plastic buttons and clicking on the picture of a button are about the same experience. Now I've got an efficient, streamlined system for playing music that involves absolutely no tactile involvement at all. Perhaps this is why I'm so into good computer keyboards---but compare the keys on your keyboard with the keys on a piano (not to be confused with a MIDI keyboard). In the end, convenience and cheapness will always win out over tactile fun. That's why CDs made records basically disappear, and why MP3s threaten to make the entire concept of music purchased with a tangible physical medium obsolote.

For me, this brings up two questions: first, how far will the virtualization of things go? Will all our media be on screens and speakers; our cars, tools, and other assorted things with buttons replaced with little touch-screens and voice commands; the soft parts replaced by pictures of soft parts; and once-heavy things like glass jars, wood furniture, and telephones replaced with cheap, light, and fully functional plastic counterparts? What'll be left? Which brings us to the central question:

What will we do with our hands?

The visitors from the future are always drawn as having gigantic heads and tiny hands. I wonder if the future really is in not touching things. I guess it can go one of two ways. We may not care at all, since our heads are getting bigger, or we may start to care much more about the things that are basically impossible to replace with non-tactile substitutes: clothing, food, people.

Which is how my RSS feed has made my life better: by streamlining the way I waste time online, I'm forced to read physical books, put my hands under running water, play records, and live more in the tactile world.

[link][no comments]

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

14 July 04. RSS, again.

So back in April, I'd written about the joy and delight of the RSS feed. The summary: whereas the web had once been an endless pit of time-consumingness, RSS made it manageable and easy. Whereas I'd spend all day in glassy-eyed clicking before, I could now spend a little under an hour reading everything I could possibly read, and could then move on to do things involving the real world.

Oh, how times have changed. I now have so many RSS feeds that it is a truly Sissyphean task to read them all. Whereas before I could have a set, fixed endpoint (`stop when I've read all the feed updates'), this is now impossible. Meerkat, O'Reilly's wire service, will feed me a thousand links a day. Seriously reading two percent of that is already an hour. And I haven't even gotten to the newspaper yet: the New York Times will feed me a hundred articles a day, of which I'll want to read a whole lot more than two percent.

In other news, I've entirely stopped reading anything that doesn't have an RSS feed. I paid some guy to write up an RSS feed for Toothpaste for Dinner because it's funny in a severly embittered kind of way, but with no RSS feed pushing it upon me, I never looked at it. So I'm more lazy, but not actually saving more time.

The other thing that amazes me about all of these RSS feeds is the immense repetition. First, there's direct copying: Meerkat aggregates other RSS feeds, without editing, and puts them out for you in one feed instead of several. [And so, given that feed readers are now a dime a download, I'm not sure what its point is anymore.] And of course, other blogs frequently have entries among the original content in the way of `so over at this blog, they say...' without really adding much of anything.

But beyond that is the original generation of the same idea that ten other people also originally came up with. As some of you may know, I'm writing a book on software patents, so many of my feeds are about intellectual property, and frankly, the news is almost exactly the same on all ten of `em. Even the stories themselves tend to repeat; I've simply stopped reading DMCA cases, they're all so alike (as is the outrage they inspire again). This form of repetition feels even sillier than the blatant copying above---at least there was no effort expended in copying. Here, there are extensive write-ups which boil down to the same facts and the same emotions; if these guys all teamed up, they'd have one feed with the same content and a tenth of the effort.

In my own head, this turns into a constant pressure to not repeat myself or others. The `others' part is frankly kind of easy: since all ten of our IP authors look at IP in the same way, I really only have to distinguish myself from one mindset. The `self' part is getting harder and harder. This is my 75th blog entry, and I simply don't have 75 actual real live ideas. This blog has been up for almost a year, but others have been up for the better part of a decade---how do they do it? It constantly worries me, and is the reason I've been posting less lately: when am I going to hit that age when everything I say is just repetition, and have I already hit it?

[link][a comment]

on Thursday, July 15th, Paul said

And yet somehow, there's another new idea! How do you do it?

Some writers have supposed that there's a finite number of stories to tell, and everything is just a variation on one of those. (36 is one number:

And yeah, I struggle with just linking to stuff. I hate to do it--I feel like I'm cheating if I'm not providing something original--but I also know friends who don't surf compulsively, constantly, and who actually find stuff through me. Like Angelique will be really thankful for a "curated" presentation of political links.

But yes, it feels kind of pointless sometimes. Like anybody should be able to pull up and know 95% of what's in bloggoworld w/o ever even reading a blog.

If anything, I alway try to--if I'm going to link--link to more obscure or local or small-scale stuff. Like "How to Argue with a Conservative," e.g. (By the way, I want a conclusion!)

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

02 December 04. The navel-gazing entry

OK, so the content management system keeps track, and this is the hundredth entry.

What I'd had here: I had written up an appropriately self-absorbed analysis of the situation to date: me, the audience, our interaction. I'd posted the winners among this month's oddest search terms:
persuasive essay about gallstone
i hate my students
young teen girls liking another girls boobies
crusades pictoral
gays are rapping by pictures
optimal griping position
[That was the end of November. This month: ecuadorian dwarves.]

I'd talked about the effect that writing on a regular basis has had on my thought process and my writing ability. The big winner among ways my writing has improved by writing sort-of-essays on a sort-of-regular basis is that I cut more. I used to think that every frigging thing I'd written was golden. I mean, I'd put effort into constructing the sentence just right, and now it's so delightfully clever---the reader would be so much worse off if such beauty weren't brought to light.

So yeah, I cut more. There are paragraphs and sections in the dustbin, and even entire half-entries which just never went anywhere, or never said anything that others haven't already said better, or that just didn't feel good---like the entry that used to be here before I deleted it all.

Small scale: The medium one writes with needs a method of turing an undesirable paragraph into an invisible comment. It is much easier to say `oh, I'll just set aside this paragraph for now' than `I'll just irrevocably delete what I'd jut written'. That is, if my writing tool allows commenting, my output will be of higher quality.

[The tech details: Word and OpenOffice users: don't send out DOC or SXW files. If you save as a PDF, then your bitchy asides and bad writing are safe. [How to save a DOC as a PDF: download, open your Word document with it, click file|export.] HTML is half-OK, since people never read the comments unless they're really bored. If that describes you, then let me confess that I myself have some nontrivial comments in many entries. TeX users, put \long\def\comment#1{} somewhere, and then \comment{stuff} will work (but be careful about spacing).]

Large scale: I've been posting less frequently lately, partly because I have so many things I've already said, but partly because my quality control is higher. It gets back to the root question of what a blog is supposed to be, exactly. Unlike (daily or weekly) TV or (weekly or monthly) magazines or any other medium that I can think of, the blog does not need to be updated regularly.

I'm reasonably confident that in the near future, I will be able to produce interesting content; however, I have absolutely no faith that in any given seven-day period I will produce anything of interest at all. And this is where RSS saves me: I don't have to make sure that I have something every day or week to keep you interested, `cause when I have something, the RSS feed will tell you. And so, RSS makes me a better writer.

[Tech: So if you don't have an RSS reader, get thee to Bloglines and set yourself up. There are probably at least a half dozen other irregularly-updated sites which you read, so a centralized site-checker will pay off quickly.]

The moral is that although our modern technological world has given us the ability to cheaply produce reams of cheap content, in a few ways it's also given us the ability to filter and throw away content. On balance, I think I'm a better writer for it.

My faves Since this is the navel-gazing entry, I wanted to give those of you who weren't here from day one a brief list of favorites from the archive, since I've written well over a novel's worth of text and you're probably not going to read it all. So here are the entries that score high in importance, utility, or reader popularity. Rereading, I think a few sentences could be cut from all of them.

10/14/2004: Does Economics make people evil?
09/16/2004: Cohen calls his tailor on the `phone
09/09/2004: Neoclassicism watch
08/10/2004: Comparative advantage and capital
07/08/2004: Debate suggestions
06/02/2004: Yet another entry about drug access restrictions.
05/18/2004: Accounting for humans
05/12/2004: Measuring attractiveness
04/06/2004: Instrumental music measures
03/30/2004: Floating in midair
01/14/2004: The legacy of the French
12/18/2003: Israel I
11/28/2003: The perception of causation

Next time I'll get back to the usual alienating overtechnical detail.

[link][a comment]

on Saturday, December 4th, zoe said

I also liked "I just wasn't made for these times" and "The CLT again"

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

26 March 06. Anatomy of an op-ed

[PDF version]

The editorial page of your favorite newspaper or magazine is primarily (but not 100%) push-driven. Editors don't solicit editorials; editorials solicit editors.

Here's the timeline: I wrote a 700-word op-ed on Tuesday, and sent it to the think tank's Communications department, where we have a few people who work full-time on placing op-ed pieces in the newspapers. Ms AM wrote up a polite cover, and emailed it to the editors of a paper or two (I don't know how many). The editor of the Wall Street Journal wrote back on Friday, saying that he'll run the thing as a letter. He cut a few hundred words, sent it back to me and Ms AM for approval, I made two tweaks, the editor prepended a sensational headline that I did not approve, and it ran in today's paper.

Among the columns pushed upon him or her, what will an editor pick? No surprises: the work will have to be apropos to current news, and will have to be sensational. Simmering-but-not-boiling issues will not run. Moderate opinions will not run. Or at least, as in the case of my editorial, relatively moderate opinions will be revised to sound as sensational as possible.

The topical topics only rule produces a random draw somewhat biased toward pressing issues. On any given day, one out of fifty pressing problems breaks, and that one gets to be in the news that day. It ain't the most efficient method, but I suppose there are worse.

The trouble with patents has been building for a decade, but it hasn't been in the mainstream press until the whole thing about the Blackberry hit. Now, it's easy for me to get op-eds printed, because disaster is already starting to strike. But wouldn't it be great if people could have gotten press five years ago about how trouble like the Blackberry case is on its way? But punchiness really does force the press to be reactive instead of proactive.

The guys on Capitol Hill want desperately to be proactive. They're smart folks, and many of them care about good policy. That means that the press, to the extent that it goes after what happened yesterday, is of limited relevance to policymakers. Conversely, to the extent that rulemaking is about obscure details of legal code, policymakers are assured that general media will not molest them.

The other problem is in writing for tiny attention spans. As I have demonstrated often enough, I could easily write a 7,000 word article on the problem of defining patentable subject matter, and that would still be omitting loads of details. But news media are much more interested in covering lots of topics in minimal detail rather than one topic in depth. And so, I get to cut that article down into a 700-word op-ed, from which the editors will delete a few hundred words. Especially with online media, this isn't necessary, because readers can be brought to the well and drink as much as they choose to. But there's a 700-word standard out there that everybody seems to stick to anyway.

TV and radio are only worse. They have a hard-and-fast time constraint, meaning that they have no choice but to be on the low-detail end of the spectrum. A five-minute piece can not have much more content than a one-page op-ed, which is not much. I've done a few interviews for the nice people at NPR. One went for half an hour, and my final on-air time in the three-minute piece was a single sentence--I didn't even get a semicolon. Last week, I got a call where I was explaining the situation to a radio reporter, and she said, exasperated, “We've been talking for thirteen minutes now and I still don't have a good ten-second clip.” I wound up getting cut from that one entirely.

You don't need me to tell you this, but details are anathemic to punchiness, and so are going to be lost. If your idea is too complex for a single sentence, it's evidently not worth the listener's time.

The odd relationship
Nothing in this little column is new to you. You know the generalist media chase ambulances and have no attention span without me telling you.

I'm mostly whining because before I started dealing with media folk on a regular basis, I didn't think that it would all be so true. Every time I deal with generalist media people, I feel pressure (often explicit) to round off details and say caustic and sensationalist things. When I get off the telephone or hit the send button, I fret about how the journalist at the other end is going to spin and simplify me until I disagree with myself.

So, am I going to stop talking to media folks and stop submitting oversimplified op-eds? Of course not. If I want Congress to do anything, or if I want to get grants or continue writing, I need media appearances. It's how we keep score. For many people, the mental shortcut to answer the question is this person worth talking to? is to reduce it to has this person been published in/by something I've heard of? The first question is about whether the person knows the topic in depth, while the second is about whether the person can convince an editor that he or she can summarize information for a general audience. But it is an ingrained heuristic, rooted in observation biases that one could characterize as basic human nature, and I can't imagine a future where such tendencies magically disappear.

So it's not going to go away. There will always be a need for generalist media, and generalist media will always be better-recognized and more widely read than specialized media, and to maximize audiences they will chase ambulances and oversimplify. Further, people like me have a strong incentive to play along even though we really hate to, because so many people equate widely-read with authoritative.

[link][no comments]

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

26 April 06. Paid to think

[PDF version]

This is part three of three. It will make the most sense if you maybe look over part I, Anatomy of an op-ed and part II, Anti-intellectual.

When I ask people what they do, the most interesting answers are verbs. I don't care that you're an assistant executive manager for BungleCo. What have you been doing for the last eight hours? Have you been talking to people? Organizing papers? What conflicts do you need to resolve?

Conversely, when I tell people that I work at a think tank, many of them are entirely unconcerned with what I actually do during the day, because they already have the correct image of me staring at a computer screen until my eyeballs hurt. The real mystery: where does the money come from? How does somebody make money at a place where people just sit around and, um, think?

Writing doesn't pay the bills. If you get a few hundred bucks for an op-ed, you should be delighted. If you put out a magazine article a month, you can make a living, but then you're a full-time journalist and don't have time for anything else. The book? I've made more on Amazon referral commissions than royalties for writing the thing. From a business perspective, the press placements are all just advertising.

Not everybody thinks they know all there is to know about knowing things. There are people who appreciate an expert. They realize that the most efficient means of doing things is a division of labor where they produce widgets and when they need a policy expert, they hire one, rather than thinking they can study up on the subject in their spare time.

So when does somebody need an expert in a given policy? When they have a deeply-held opinion, and need somebody to espouse it. By finding an expert who happens to agree with them, the expert gets funded and the interested party gets support on its beliefs. And that is where all those studies funded by the most obvious donor come from. Since I know the software patent debate well, I can point to a pro-software patent study or two that says “We are grateful to Microsoft for their support” on the cover. Some read this and presume that MSFT found somebody to speak for them, and then purchased their opinion. But the flow probably went the other way: the expert formed his opinion (I have in mind two guys, one of whom I know), and then approached Microsoft about maybe providing funding for the research.

This is how the funding for many a study happens: first, the expert does research until he knows the subject well. He has formed his honest best opinion about the subject. He starts writing up a few pages. Then, he shops it around.

Dear philanthropic organization/corporation/wealthy individual: I have an opinion, and can state it eloquently and with authority. Further, that opinion happens to match yours perfectly! What a wonderful coincidence. If you'd like me to continue fleshing out this idea which I personally hold, then please send cash.

The expert is independently deriving his opinion, but the funding certainly has great potential to corrupt the expert's research. First, there are the details to be negotiated, wherein funder and researcher agree on the broad concept, but there may be details on which they differ. Second, there is the problem of the non-unitary actor. You know that guy that MSFT funded because they agree with him? We're coworkers, to the extent that you'd call this work. When I plug in my laptop to write articles opposing MSFT's IP position, MSFT chips in for the juice.

There are a few approaches to the conflict. I'm happy to say that in my case, the administrators at my think tank are well aware that my writing disagrees with the position of one of its funders, and at no point have they asked me to tone down my bitching. They care more about doing independent research than any one donor, and know that the only way to please all the donors all the time is to never say anything.

Another approach is to take such a firm opinion that there's no way to budge. Are there orthodox economic motivations for government regulation? Absolutely. Will you hear about any of them from the Cato Institute? Funders know the answer to that one, and know not to bother asking.

The final approach, of course, is to fold to pressure. I could only guess at how often this happens. To keep a parallel essay form, I should give an example here, but that would be rude.

The other way that the 'formulate hypothesis, then find funding' approach can create bias is in the suppression of certain ideas. This is no conspiracy theory suppression, but the simple fact that publicizing an idea needs both an expert to formulate it and a funder to pay for it. You can find an expert somewhere that espouses any given idea, but the business side has a whole lot more money than the rest of us, so why doesn't the policy world turn into a gigantic pro-business alliance? First, the funding for the pure social benefit is surprisingly large. There are general funds like MacArthur, Ford, Soros, Hewlett, and while we're talking MSFT, the Gates Foundation, that have little or no interest in supporting moneyed interests. Any one of these funds could keep several think tanks running for a long time to come.

Second, there's two sides to every issue. Say Company A has a labor-intensive process to produce pollutants, while Company B has a giant machine that was built in Japan to produce the same pollutants. Company A will be happy to support bills that espouse anti-business import tariffs because they would hurt Company B more; Company B will be happy to support higher minimum wage laws, because doing so is handing a charge to its competitor. As for the overall corporate tax rate, you won't see much disagreement.

Thus, the problem of getting funding for policy research (and the problem of policy design in general) is finding the mega-rich interests that happen to agree with your belief. For any sufficiently detailed question, there will be some balance between the funders.

This was going to be a general essay about how a think tank pays the bills, but the question of how corporate funding can support objective and honest policy research is the interesting part. Keeping to my original intent, there are a few other folks who are interested in experts and willing to pay for it. There is consulting in the traditional sense of companies hiring an expert for the day. The guys who study international trade policy happen to know a lot about international trade that a business may be interested in.

Others are interested in access for the sake of keeping engaged. People want to be surrounded by folks who are beautiful and smart; the think tank ain't doing much for the beautiful part, but has its share of smart folks who can say an interesting thing or two. There are people who will contribute to be a part of that. The administrators describe these folks as individuals who “get it”, where “it” is the value of good research, regardless of the bias of that research. If this were Broadway, I suppose we'd call these guys angels.

There's also the funding from the pure research supporters, such as the National Institute of Assorted, which is not nearly as exciting. Though, it's a chance to mention an interesting paradox that applies to academic work in general: nobody will fund a study that doesn't have a good idea of the expected conclusion. You can't do the research until you've got the funding; you can't write a good proposal until you've done the research. The academics who can unravel that knot live in big houses.

[link][3 comments]

on Monday, May 1st, Greg Harris said


I found your blog log through Katie's. Thanks for moving her going away party to a new level of memorable. Later,


on Thursday, February 25th, Preeti said

Just stumbled upon this article..great writing and love the inside perspective on think tanks. One of my favorite professors and the Soc. Dept. head used to talk about this same paradox and how research gets corrupted by corporate interests. Thank goodness for the few who do support unbiased research!

on Wednesday, August 31st, Mister M umps said

Eh? This blog is most likely dead, but questions remain. Have you ever done some real, substantial thought projects? Substantial not so much in the idea+approval=profit, more so, say, idealistic nonsense, exasperated postulations of the umpteenth dimension,
breaking through the arbitrary barriers between science, religion, technology, and homeostasis? I would think not, as it would seem to further no ones pocket book, and great ideas left to rot in the graveyard of our memories. I have some vested hope in the existence of the collective consciousness, and that regardless of the willful ignorance in the world, man is on an inescapable collision course with the 'truth', more so than we have known it.

All in all an interesting article, although it does make me question whether or not to pursue a career in professional thinking, if only there were a position for professional procrastinator, I have a BS in PP from ALCU and the AARP, think about it ;+)

Mister M umps

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

14 July 06. Wikieverything

[PDF version]

You all know good ol' Wikipedia, but there are also Wikibooks. As you browse through the books at that site, you'll notice two things: they aren't very complete (most are half an essay at best), and they aren't very good.

I'm not going to talk about the reliability and authority issue which seems to dominate most discussion of wikimedia. Personally, if I'm reading to get a lite intro to a subject of which I'm ignorant, I'll take Wikipedia as gospel, because it doesn't matter; if I'm working on an academic topic, then I'm not going to cite an encyclopædia of any sort, but will have my own external sources providing detail. You no doubt have your own sense of what is or is not reliable.

Instead, I'm going to talk here about why the deck is stacked against wikibooks and other attempts to apply the open source idea to every field of endeavor.

Narrative vs reference
Mr. ZF of Nueva York, NY tried to get readers of his blog to write comic scripts. Yup, wikicomedy. From the linked article: “Quickly, the script began to get out of hand. Jokes became tediously long. There were arguments over the content of the material, and over who had the authority to approve or delete it, with some writers taking a dominant role and deleting the work of others at will.”

The average entry on Wikipedia is between a single line and a few pages long. They have limited narrative depth at best, and generally just cover a simple list of facts. Although wikipedia would be thousands of pages if printed out in its entirety, nobody is expected to have edited anything beyond a sliver, and nobody expects it to have any structure beyond alphabetical order.

Two exquisite
corpses from the Art Institute of Chicago, dated 1928
Figure one: Wikiart from the surrealists. [Photo credit]

Computer code is much like this: a person working on one subpart of a program doesn't have to know anything about how the other subparts work. To write a translator, Jane can work on text parsing, Joe can work on a set of dictionaries, and Jess can work on the clicky interface, and all can work with little regard to what the other parties are doing.

Narrative works don't have such wonderful compartmentalization. Sure, there are chapters, but if the chapters don't tightly come together, we won't like the darn story much.

You ever play the Exquisite Corpse? You fold a paper in thirds, and draw a head, and then refold so the head isn't visible and hand the paper to a pal who draws the torso, and then your pal hides the torso and another pal draws the waist and the legs. Then you unfold it all and laugh about how delightful such a disjointed figure could be. If you were lucky enough to be one of the founders of the Surrealist movement, then your drawing will wind up on the wall of the Art Institute of Chicago (see figure). But for the rest of us, the game is a fun brainstorm but ain't a final work.

Anthologies are common enough, but we often call them edited volumes and put the editor's name on the cover to remind the reader that somebody sat down and made sure that the elements somehow cohered.

We're used to other aggregate works directed by one individual: pop songs that have a single producer and movies with one director. I leave to the reader the debate over the quality of songs written via jamming with the band versus songs written by a single composer.

OK, there's your survey of media. Painting, sculpture, movies, music, novels, all involve one or a small number of people directing a final product, which may have been touched by dozens of hands. This is not surprising, and I don't think anybody seriously expects wikipainting to truly surpass the old method.

But textbooks. There seems to be a serious belief that a textbook can be collaboratively written by a committee. This is not a new wikiconcept. In elementary school, we all had many a textbook with no author or editor on the cover, and a list of committee members on the title page.

Those textbooks sucked.

We often refer to a subject like math or biology as a field. Picture a big expanse of plain, in which you could take any direction. When we go to school, we take courses--carefully guided paths through an open expanse. In other words, a good textbook goes somewhere. It is a narrative.

Conversely, some textbooks attempt to survey the entire field at once. Such books are frankly no longer textbooks, but are rightly called references. They have their place, but it ain't teaching. I can see the appeal for the textbook writers, who want to maximize their market share. They provide as much material as possible in the hopes that the teacher will select a course through the material; some teachers do, covering only chapters 1.3, 3.8, 8.1, and 16.4, while others wind up ploughing through the entire field, column by column. [If you are reading this in book form, I've put effort in to cohering the essays into something of a few narrative threads. Really.]

The wikimethod is good for writing references but bad for writing narratives, so the deck is stacked against wikitextbooks. Again, like the encyclopædic texts, they have a valid and valuable place on the e-bookshelf, but they can't replace narrative works, just as (conversely) we wouldn't read a single narrative and claim that we understand the entire field.

I built it and nobody came
Much open source propaganda goes into telling us that if you provide a good and useful basic structure, then diverse people will contribute little elements to it, until you eventually have a complete system. Mr. Eric Raymond has built his entire career on this premise, and I will admit to putting such claims in print myself.

Of course, it's not so simple. The real success stories in open source come from a single good idea, some good coding, and lots of good advertising and self-promotion. Of course, it also helps if your program is about porn.

Out of a thousand readers, over 990 won't fix so much as a typo, and a handful will make little ten-second fixes on a single equation or such. If you're lucky, maybe a single reader out of every few thousand will contribute the significant time investment to contribute a narrative. Open source provides a new alternative to finding and coordinating coauthors, but it's not particularly a revolution over existing coauthoring tools (diff, revision control, those cute little change tracking features in word processors). The fact remains that a narrative is best written by a small number of people in close communication.

[link][no comments]

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

28 November 06. Navel-gazing entry II

[PDF version]

The best-of
People often tell me, `B, love the blog, but I wish it were easier to read in the bathroom.' So, here it is: all the best entries, in printable form. The made-up reviewers rave:

  • “It's both fluffy and informative!”
  • “He spell-checked it!”
  • “I replaced my copy of Esquire with this, and thanks to all those charts and graphs, now my houseguests think I'm smart or something!”
  • “Much more accessible than his book on statistical computing!”
  • “It's a triumph of semantic markup!”

And if you're a publisher, take this as a prospectus. Quirky books by economists are hot these days.

The readership
On to a few questions that have been gnawing at me for a while. Let a `regular reader' be somebody who has visited this here site eight or more times in 2006. Then I have over a thousand regular readers. Data: 8,385 people visited once, 61 people visited over 100 times:

Visit Number Visits
1 8385
2 429
3 169
4 101
5 80
6 65
7 56
8 49
9-14 195
15-25 227
26-50 245
51-100 242
101-200 61

Given that I only have about two friends, this is a bit mystifying. So, ¿who are you people? and ¿what do you people want from me? Please, take twenty seconds and answer those questions in the ornery comment box below. Feel free to omit your email address, use just your initials, or otherwise not tell me who you actually are. But if I have a better idea of who's reading and why, I'll be able to write better stuff in the future.

[link][9 comments]

on Tuesday, November 28th, techne said

hello. I read your blog.

on Wednesday, November 29th, Cocoa said

Like Techne, I have been known to read your blog.

Here are some things I'd like to know:

1) How to get a person on the phone (instead of voice-activated-commanding-computer-lady).

2) Where and/or how to 'build' my own computer.

3) Will there be peace in Israel?

4) How I can retain more of what I read and/or deciding what is important from all of the crap out there.

I understand that you may not be able to answer these questions (based on their somewhat rhetorical nature). But you asked, so I answered.

on Wednesday, November 29th, Cocoa said

Also, I'd like to know how to turn the center-align default off my comment. Thanks

on Thursday, November 30th, Derrick said

Hi. Guess what? I'm reading.

By the way -- Cocoa may be interested to know that you can often bail out of Voice User Interfaces (a.k.a. "voice-activated-commanding-computer-lady") by screaming your head off into the receiver. These things have models built in to detect user frustration, and route really pissed customers to humans. Pressing buttons randomly works pretty well too, but screaming is a lot more fun.

on Thursday, November 30th, DH said

I still read!!! I loved the last one :)

on Thursday, November 30th, Miss ALS of San Diego said

i found you during a drunk googling episode. somehow you ended up in my bookmarks.

alcohol is great for making pals.

on Saturday, December 2nd, SueDoc said

I want more of your favorite non-legume recipes, because I am allergic to soy and peanuts but I would still like to cut down on my dead animal consumption.

But I like just about everything else you post, too. I am not picky.

on Monday, December 4th, h for hi said

I merely want to protest the use of the bracketing question marks while using italics, as well. What a waste. It defeats the entire purpose of double q-marks. You know Spanish, but, you don't.


on Friday, December 8th, Andy said

I think you should retitle this series "omphaloskeptical entry" part x, y, z...

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

18 March 07. Web 2.1

[PDF version]

Some people, expecting a different format in a blog, wonder why all my entries are six page essays. Why don't I ever just talk about what I had for lunch, like a proper blog?

But, in fact, I do--on the RSS feed. If you don't know what RSS is, well, it's time; go check Wikipedia.

We can roughly divide the world's web pages into those that are single-topic and probably not frequently updated, like a course web site or a page on wicker collectibles, and those that are updated on a regular basis, like blogs, The Onion, and the New York Times.

The regularly-updated pages have more-or-less converged to an agreement about look and functionality. They have a three-column layout, the entries are in the center column, which is usually 200 screens tall, and divided into entries, and each entry has a button to click to go to the entry page. You can comment, click various buttons regarding social networking, and so on. You know the drill very well.

A telephone with an RSS button.
Figure One: Yes, that is an RSS button on a telephone.

Let us ask the ten-year question: ten years from now, will people be doing it this way? From my perspective, the answer is a solid no. As in Figure One, there are many other ways to get a single blob of oft-updated information than via a web page in a web browser on a desktop computer. I personally spend most of my time in an RSS reader, and only go to other pages when I need information about the Gamma distribution or wicker collectibles. By the way, I get the impression that most of the individually-run sites about such things have basically been eaten by Wikipedia, for better or for worse. For most of the regular-update sites I read every day, I don't even know what they look like any more.

It's all about that blob of new information. The graphics are nice, but not superurgent. The Digg This! button is frankly more for the benefit of the author, not the reader. As for the comments, I'll get to those below. The link list, search box, and a few other details are nice, but 90% of the time I just want that single new blob of information. So how can that blob be delivered?

RSS is perfect for blob delivery, which is why it is gaining in popularity. And with RSS comes the realization that it doesn't have to be in a web page on a web browser on a desktop computer.

I'm enamored of Internet appliances, not in the sense of smallish computers that read web pages on web browsers, but things like voice-over-IP telephones. Mr DRC of Indianapolis, IN can't stop raving about a device he plugs into his stereo that connects to his wireless network and streams Internet radio stations. During the whole Net Neutrality thing, the anti-neutrality side kept talking about an Internet heart rate monitor that would constantly communicate with the hospital. I don't know if such a thing exists (and if it does, it's certainly not going to need major bandwidth or bandwidth priority), but it's a great example of what could be done.

And yes, I do often read RSS feeds on my telephone.

So the thing that bothers me about the Web 2.0 mini-revolution is the Web part. The fundamental premise of the question “How can we make our web pages more interactive, useful, and fun?” is that there is a web browser involved, and there really doesn't have to be.

So, I've started posting entries to this page's RSS feed with no web page attached. Each such entry is a single blob of information, with no search box, no picture of my beaming face, no linkroll. That's all on this page whenever you need it. The longer essays, which aren't so easy to read on a telephone, are still here in big print so you don't strain your eyes, or PDF format for reading in the bathroom.

Mr AF of Washington, DC points out that there's nowhere to comment on my obnoxious ranting in an RSS feed. But comments are also small blobs of information, so they would fit comfortably on a feed as well. You can post them on your own feeds, or appropriate mechanisms for submitting to somebody else's feed will no doubt avail themselves--there are already many web sites with comment RSS feeds. I.e., it'll work itself out.

Summary: If we're still using a browser ten years from now, it won't look like it does today, and it won't be a central part of our lives, because we'll have a dozen other ways to get small blobs of information from both friends and newspapers. Also, if you haven't subscribed to this page's RSS feed, you'll never know what I had for lunch today.

Having completed that thought, let me swing to a brief editorial on the use of Extensible Markup Language, XML. You see those three letters often, and they are often given Messianic attributes, so let me take a minute and discuss the format in further detail.

XML is intended to intersperse data with metadata, such as specifying that the text “Web 2.1” is a title, and the text “Eric B Blair” is an author. Are there other ways to do this? Sure. A myriad. XML just happens to be relatively easy for a computer to read and write.

Incidentally, many alternatives are easier for humans to write, because XML requires a lot of redundancy and odd situations where you need to replace < with &lt; and so on. The XML validation process is hard. Me, I write everything in LATEX and use latex2html to produce the web page. This has proven to be much more human-friendly, plus you get the PDF version for free.

An XML document really has two parts: the document itself, and a document type definition (DTD) which is basically a table listing what tags are valid. But even this is not sufficient to parse a document. Now that I know that xls:wkdy or whatever means that the forthcoming number from zero to six is a weekday in a spreadsheet, what do I do with it? Is zero Monday, Sunday, or Thursday?

That is, the hard part of developing a standard is not the part about reading and writing text, but the information itself. As for the Weekdays, Microsoft has famously botched this one; scroll down to their zany specification in the blockqoute on this OpenOffice-oriented blog.

All of which is to say that the development of interesting standards is great, because it will lead to lots of fun Internet appliances where the sender and receiver have both agreed on a set of metadata tags and how to handle data in each given format. But when somebody says “We are using XML, so we're standards-compliant,” you can safely ignore them--they're writing data down right but have said nothing about the hard parts of writing a standard.

[link][a comment]

on Monday, March 19th, spoofy said

I just sent this page to a delighted coworker.. "RSS feeds, what are they?" And minutes later, upon explanation, "Why isn't everything available via RSS?" Oh technology...the infinite wonder... the reverse solidus.

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

10 January 08. On writing

[PDF version]

Today's artificial division of the world into two types: those who are productive because of constraints and those who are productive despite them.

As with any `two kinds of people in this world' distinction, it's artificial, but I'm gonna run with it anyway. My favorite distinction of this type is from Pink Flamingos: `There are two kinds of people in the world: my kind, and assholes.' That just sums up the worldview of so very many people.

Igor Stravinsky was decidedly on the side of constraints:

My freedom thus consists in moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further. My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit. (Stravinsky, 1942, p 65)
So Mr. Stravinsky works within certain forms, though you won't find many folks who would call him uncreative.

On the other end, you've got the joke about how Michelangelo carved David: he started with a block of marble, then chipped away all the parts of the block that don't look like David.

You could argue that the constraints are just a question of degree: Michelangelo still had the constraint of the limited tools and techniques he had on hand, and marble has certain properties that preclude some techniques that would be fine on other slabs. But for the length of this column, I'm standing by my arbitrary distinction. E.g., at the extremes, you start to see the differences in people's reactions. When you list a hundred considerations before anybody can do anything, some people get engaged and start exploring the possibilities and combinations and some get frustrated; when you present a blank piece of paper and say go, some people get flustered and some attack.

I used to play a lot of Chess--I won the junior division Chess championship at the Champaign Public Library--but quickly gave up on it, because playing the game stressed me out. When you set up a Chess board, 50% of the board is covered in pieces. The pawns are in front, which means that you have to get them out of the way before you can move the pieces you want to move. That is, Chess is a game of constraints. There are many shelves' worth of books on Chess openings, and you could read them as a catalog of constraints: if you move here, this constraints loosens, but this other constraint binds more tightly, whereas if you do this the situation is reversed.

So I still play Chess at about the level of a skilled fifth grader, and have since moved to playing Go. The full game is played on a 19-by-19 grid, which means that the first player can pick among 361 options, though there are only a hundred or two that are salient. The second player then has 360 choices for the response, and so on until a structure and its constraints emerge out of nothing. I won't claim to be more than an OK Go player, but I feel better playing it.

So I'm coming to a close on my second book. I have about a dozen pages that need a heap of research and rewriting, and then I can count the whole 450pp of it as done. That is, I'm in the endgame, where there is a structure and its attendant constraints--that I built for myself--and I have to work within them to solve problems. So I came over here and filled a blank screen with text.

But that's why I like writing, be it stupid columns like this, full books, or code. It's the process of building something out of nothing--creating meaning.

Just as a block of marble is not perfectly malleable, a blank screen is not entirely constraint-free, being that you need to fill it with some coherent sort of language (English, HTML, C, some combination thereof). Further, you need to accommodate the sort of constraints other humans impose. A theory of the audience's mind is absolutely essential for good writing--and good sculpting, good coding, and any other sort of filling of the blank slate. Unless you put “Dear Diary” at the top of the page, you'd better have something that other people find coherent and useful.

To formalize this, more or less every published work has a query letter attached, explaining who the audience will be for the book/article/whatever, and why the article will interest and serve that audience. When I'm in a bookstore, I often try to picture the query letter that was attached to any given book. “Dear Editor: I would like to propose to you a book entitled Dancing with Cats, which will consist of photos of people dancing with their cats. Although the cat photography market is crowded and demand is strong, I could not find a single book in which the cats were dancing.”

But anyway, watching things form is fun. My commute passes several construction projects, and I always stop watching the road for a block to see how much more things are taking shape today than they were the last time I passed by. Then they finally finish, and it's just another condo.

OK, The Form says that this is where I'd put a conclusion, which would say something like, `In conclusion, I like writing stuff. I like watching things form'. But instead, here's a picture of a row of Baltimore houses being torn down to build a hospital.

As promised, a row of Baltimore houses being torn down to build a hospital.
Figure one: Creating a blank slate.

Relevant previous entries:
A prior essay on writing: “Why I blog”

title = {Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons: The {C}harles {E}liot {N}orton Lectures},
author = {Igor Stravinsky},
year = {1942},
publisher = {Harvard University Press},

[link][2 comments]

on Wednesday, January 16th, a silly person said

The cat book!! Yay! hmm...I wonder where you saw that?

Dear Readers of this blog: I highly recommend two books, 1) by the above author, Modeling with Data, and; 2) Dancing with cats. Both will change your life.

I get a warm and snuggly feeling just thinking about it.

on Thursday, January 17th, Mike Stanich said

I have to say it. There are only 10 types of people in the world, those who understand binary and those who don't.

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

04 June 08. Bloggers through history

[PDF version]

Here is a list of some of the bloggers I have gotten a lot out of.

Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo was among the first bloggers. His 1862 blog compilation, Les Misérables, included posts ranging from a metaphor about a man overboard, a post about religion, a post on puns (“Le calembour est la fiente de l'esprit qui vole.”: “puns are the droppings of a soaring spirit”), and about a hundred pages on Napoleon at Waterloo [Hugo 1987]. There was also a story that ran between posts, which, strangely enough, you can get as a separate edition with the blog posts omitted.

Herman Melville
I never had much interest in nautical-themed anything; e.g., I passed on Two Years Before the Mast (1840), which is as described: two years' worth of what-I-had-for-lunch entries from a sailing vessel [Dana 1987] . But I did read Melville's 1851 blog compilation, Moby Dick, which was like Les Misérables in that it combined a story with the usual blogging fare [Melville 2002]. I read it on my telephone. Most of the blog posts were about cetology (the study of whales). There you are, reading along about the exploits of the guy we call Ishmael, when Melville hits you with three or four pages on the anatomy of the porpoise, an exposition on nautical themes in the Bible (such as the plausibility of the story of Jonah and the whale), or a page or two on accounting methods for large enterprises.

George Orwell
Oh, I'll never forget when I got to the part in 1984 when Winston and Julia got in bed together and he read her a fifteen-page treatise on political economy [Orwell 1949]. It's been my model for courtship ever since. But for the most part, Mr. Orwell as we call him; it's a pen name taken from England's Orwell river was what had been called an essayist, being that the word blog had not yet been coined. See also his bullets-I-ate-for-lunch account of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia [Orwell 1980].

Neal Stephenson
For my money, his career began with this lengthy article in Wired in which he semicircumnavigates the globe, chatting about whatever comes to mind along the way. His book Cryptonomicon recycled many of his notes from that article [Stephenson 2002]. Since then, he's continued to produce a lot of pages about whatever comes to mind, such as the foundations of currency or Alan Turing's bicycle chain. My impression is that people read his books as much for learning nifty factoids as for the plot.

The Baltimore Sun
The Sun, like every newspaper in the country, has a number of daily bloggers, whom it calls columnists, a tortured word that is somehow related to the fact that newspapers are typically laid out in columns. Let us pause here and take note at the immense similarity of the words essayist, columnist, and web-logger, all of which describe a person in terms of the format of his or her text. Getting back to the Baltimore Sun's columnists, I read many of them reasonably often, because even though my raspberries were shipped in from Chile, I at least want some of my blogs to be local. I gave up on bloggers at the New York Times a long time ago, by the way.

Bertrand Russel
Russel is a mathematician, best known for his 3-volume Principia Mathematica (coauthored with Alfred Whitehead). But he digressed from that book, which already grappled with a few interesting philosophical problems, to just being a general philosopher and talk show pundit.

Lately, I've been reading his History of Western Philosophy [Russel 1945]. Each chapter has the name of a prominent thinker at the head, and covers his they're 100% males life, his works, and what Mr. Russel thinks of his works. “Spinonza (1634-77) is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers.” [p 569] He makes little effort to maintain an objective stance, and instead allows his personal philosophical position to come through throughout.

And here we get to the point of this, uh, column. Russel could have written a book that followed the history of various standard questions in philosophy and just tracked them through popular opinion: Did the average Roman think that there is a First Cause? How do Stoics think about the essence of an object? That may or may not be interesting, but that's not the book that he wanted to write or that people wanted to read: he wrote about ideas via the people who hold and embody them. That's why each chapter bears the name of a person and not a concept.

By binding ideas to people and taking each person as a bundle of ideas, we get to another favorite philosophy question which the patent court has recently been facing: can information be independent of its physical carrier? Do these concepts that the philosophers ponder all day exist by themselves, or do they exist only in the minds of the philosophers who ponder them?

Another guy, Richard Dawkins, embodies and represents the idea of the meme, a concept that is transmitted from person to person [Dawkins 1976]. Once it has a host, it combines with other memes to form baby memes. The term has been violently misused online to refer to any data that gets handed from person to person.

You don't have to take Dawkins's perspective too literally, but it provides some symmetry between ideas and people. You can think of an idea in terms of the people who foster it; you can think of a person in terms of the ideas s/he fosters.

Categorizing on a grid
Academic seminars often have a representative from every subfield in the audience. In the Q&A, the gender person asks a gender question, the econometrician asks about the details of the regressions, the education person asks how people under 18 were included in the study. I've been a part of this pattern myself. Different combinations of people produce different outcomes for how the paper is presented and how it moves forward.

You can picture a grid with topics or questions along the columns and perspectives along the rows. People are trapped in their perspectives, so they're always looking along a row, but when researching a new topic we are interested in a looking along a single column, seen from all the multiple perspectives on all the rows. Conversely, the blog--or any work by one person--looks as multiple topics from one perspective.

Because any work consists of the sum of a topic and a personal perspective, we have a categorization problem. For most books, it's easy: the libraries sort fiction by person, because it is primarily about the affect and perspective of the author; nonfiction, where the author is typically expected to stay in the background, is sorted by topic.

Bloggers who write about, oh, Brazil, are just filed by topic under Brazil, so we can just ignore the perspective and focus on the topic and have no problem.

But what does the system does with encyclopædiasts?1 The Library of Congress gave The blog digest 2007 : twelve months of the best writing from the Web the call number of PN6141 .B552 2006, which you'll recognize as the categorization for essays. And people wonder why I have a librarian... On the one hand, it's a nifty trick: buried within the overall system of category-based organization, there's a section for person-oriented organization. Also, the LoC recognizes that there's the only difference between an essayist and a blogger is the level of paper usage. But it still relies on a catch-all essays category, which is a hair away from being a misc/other category.

It's no wonder that bloggers, columnists, and essayists get so little respect: we have no idea where to put them. If they don't stick to a single topic, like whaling or the Spanish Civil war, they'll just get lost in the miscellaneous bin.

Relevant previous entries:
The last time I talked about blogging, along somewhat similar lines

author="Bertrand Russel",
title= "The History of Western Philosophy",
publisher ="Simon & Schuster"

title="Les Misérables",
author="Victor Hugo",
publisher={Signet Classics},

title="Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative",
author="Richard Henry Dana",
publisher={Dover Maritime Books},

title="Moby Dick, or The Whale",
author="Herman Melville",
publisher={Pengiun Classics},

author="George Orwell",
publisher={Secker and Warburg},

title="An Homage to Catalonia",
author="George Orwell",
publisher={Harvest Books},

author="Neal Stephenson",

author="Richard Dawkins",
title= "The Selfish Gene",
publisher ="Oxford University Press"


... diasts?1
For those of you who don't subscribe to the OED: “One who attempts to deal with every branch of knowledge, or whose studies have a very extensive range.” The OED does not offer encyclopediast or encyclopaediast as correct spellings.

[link][a comment]

on Thursday, June 5th, roger fitz said

hey Eric.

Stumbled across your blog while searching for a straight razor and strop (naturally enough).

Am simply writing (with verbs at the start of my sentences for some odd reason) to let you know of the delight it's been to read your fluffy info.

Hi from Sydney, Australia.

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human: