Sunday, July 02, 2006

It's Cool

I've lost track of where I got the picture for today's post. Wherever it was, the picture was used to illustrate Ugandan child-soldiers, but if I remember correctly the picture was actually taken in Sierra Leon and the boys probably soldiers caught up in the Liberian civil conflict in during the Charles Taylor presidency.

Last night I was hanging out with some friends in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. Oakland is where the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are located. We were all standing very near to a place on Atwood Street where I had lived back in the 1970's during my student years. It was a hot night so lots of people were hanging out on their porches and stairs. Up the street from where we were standing some fellows lit a packet of firecrackers. One of us in the group I was with fell right to ground. A friends said, "You can tell who among us was a soldier."

That was quite a revelation to me. Everyone I was with is young, college students, or recent graduates. I was there because The Africa Project connected to The Thomas Merton Center has been quite active lately and are in the midst of organizing a July event. I've missed all the recent meetings and wanted to get up to speed with what's happening and how I might help.

My young friend was on the ground at the sound of firecrackers, and that made me understand quite viscerally how war in Liberia had left an indelible mark on him. How old are those boys in that picture: 10, 12, 13? My friend, graduate from Pitt in Chemistry ready to begin his graduate studies in Medical Administration, cool as a cucumber, but flat on the ground at the sound of firecrackers. The picture I've posted and all the pictures of child soldiers I've seen kind of whir around in my brain with the image of him on the sidewalk along Meyran Avenue; to see him as if in one of those pictures.

Feedback from my last post on this blog seems as though, that is the way I've heard it, boils down to, "John (yeah Kaunda is a somewhat accidental screen name) you've gone over the edge." More to the point, the question is: "What the hell are you trying to say?"

I'm not at all sure what it is I'm trying to say. What I'm trying to do is to play around in blogging. Blogs are a new medium of communications. It's been a very long time since I read Marshall Mcluhan's Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. I don't think I understood it much, but I remember feeling rather excited about the ideas at the time. McLuhan, media scholar he was knew the effectiveness of slogans and coined "The medium is the message" to convey the idea that the consequential place towards understanding media is not the purpose and content, but the various media themselves: "blame the messenger" perhaps.

I don't know very much about computers. Like most people, I don't have a high level of competency in any area of specialization; rather I know a little about lots of stuff.

I stumbled on a discussion prompted by Chris Pirillo about the relationship between users and developers of software. Phil Jones in a pithy reply to Pirillo's notion that users had better start telling developers to jump and that developers ought to respond "How high?" slaps down Pirillo's pretense. On one level Jones' response boils down to: "Developers know more than you do." and Dr. Science would concur. Development of software requires a very high level of specialized knowledge, which doesn't just happen overnight, but requires deep immersion in study.

Via guest-blogger DK over at Joshua Marshall's Talking Points Memo a link to a report that the US Air Force is studying blogs as a source of credible information to help fight the war on terror (WOT). Dr. Brian E. Ulicny, senior scientist, is quoted as saying:
It can be challenging for information analysts to tell what’s important in blogs unless you analyze patterns.
The interesting problem is figuring out how blogs work more so than collecting and analyzing content.

Right from the start my dear readers have noted the lack of organization of my posts and suggested various approaches for correcting the deficit. One straight forward suggestion is to write the posts in my word processing software. But having begun blogging, I noticed that the process of writing in the handy Blogger software seemed quite different from writing in the standard word processor. One obvious difference is the ease of inserting links. That's very important because an essential intention of every blog post is to send readers away from the page: "Hey look, yonder, over there!" Writing blog posts was different from any other writing I'd ever done. I was aware it was different, but not too sure of how it was different.

As a computer user, I could care less about what makes my software work, I just want to do work using the software. At least that's the way I thought before reading some of the discussion prompted by Chris Pirillo's Users Vs. Developers. Over time users like me find that the software we use develop all sorts of problems. And users like me don't have a clue as to what we can do to resolve them except to find various work-arounds. I suspect like many others, I attribute a "personality" to the software installed, even in paranoid delusions imagine it conspires against me. I'm realistic enough to know such thinking isn't particularly useful, but the alternative to actually learn something about the way the software works just seems too difficult to imagine.

Andrew in the comments suggested that perhaps what I was trying to say in my previous post was: while discussions between users and developers might be useful, it's hard because we often don't share the same language. That's true, of course, but I also had the vague apprehension that by only thinking in terms of what software can do for me I've been totally oblivious--and remain so--about the fundamental architecture of software. This lead to my thinking about the changes software will bring about by the way that software is and that's different from thinking about what software does.

I like a car so I can go to the grocery store and haul my groceries back. But understanding how cars change people and the environments we construct won't come from merely paying attention to the mundane uses I put to the car. The Air Force study is entitled: Automated Ontologically-Based Link Analysis of International Web Logs for the Timely Discovery of Relevant and Credible Information. When I read that the first thing I wonder was what "ontologically-based link analysis" is? I'm not sure, but I think it's the ontological basis of software and that whatever that is might be important to understanding what software is doing to us.

McLuhan called various media "hot" or "cool." Movies are "hot" because they accentuate the visual sense. But television doesn't have such a high resolution of the visual sense, this was particularly true in the early sixties when most people were watching broadcast TV with often poor reception. A greater number of senses were required to construct meaning from television programming versus the very visual film medium. So with fuzzy pictures McLuhan considered television a "cool" medium. A fundamental point is to understand the important effects of media, what various media do to our minds, we need to look at the medium itself rather than the messages conveyed. Blogs seems cool to me too.

A friend in Holland, who is from Somalia, wrote a beautiful line in a recent email:
I understand that many people, including you and me, are keenly interested in a world in which social justice is not any more the privilege of a few but a timeless, unbounded generality. Utopia should not be found only in dictionaries since morality is not an engagement without binding! Where there is a will, there is a way and many are busy building the way.
Blogging is very much a part of this effort.

Dr. Ulicny in the article about the Air Force study about blogs said:
Our research goal is to provide the warfighter with a kind of information radar to better understand the information battlespace.
Dr. Ulicny when looking at the "information battlespace" is paying attention to the opposite side of the coin I've been paying attention too. Still, it seems quite informative that he and other scholars looking at blogs have proceeded in the study informed, it seems to me, by insights into media which McLuhan wrote about so many years ago. It's the ontological analysis I was pointing to in my last post in re users and developers of software. But I'm still trying to sort things out in my mind about that.

In the meantime, Phil Jones is busy blazing new trails in cyberspace. He has a new blog complementing a new project producing podcasts of interviews with some of the smartest bloggers around. The name is, Political Ideas and Values. First up is an interview with Dan Abbott who blogs at tdaxp. Both Jones and Abbott are deep in their knowledge of computer science. True to Phil's blog name, Political Ideas and Values, the interview follows topics of doing rather than being. However, Jones raises the question explicitly about the affinities between computer science and Abbott's political research. It's interesting to hear throughout the discussion how such a systems-view does affect how they think about things. The conversation is intelligent, accessible, and well worth your while to check out.


phil jones said...

It's hard to tell, but my guess is that "ontology based" simply means that they've got some kind of classification scheme; either for blogs or for individual posts or even for individual links.

They probably try to infer some information about the blogs and automatically give them a classification based on keywords, who they link to etc. eg. "blog X is a warblog" or "blog Y is a muslim blog"

Then they probably do something like Blogpulse ( does, but looking for trends within particular classes. Eg. "here are the 10 most linked addresses from anti-American blogs in the middle-east"

That would be my guess, anyway.

As to my response to Pirillo. I don't really want to slap down pretentiousness of users. I totally agree with Dave Winer's notion of users and developers partying together. Users are obviously the domain experts on what they want to do. And developers must pay attention that.

But I think that Chris's "users vs. developers" meme is misleadingly wrong. It fits into a comfortable and misleading prejudice that things are hard because developers are weird or perverse.

But the real problem is in the majority of cases with software is that the people who specify it are specifying it for other people to use.

Think of all the large corporations that decide how they want the corporate workflow system or the corporate ERP system to work. Most of the time, they're specifying the software not make the users' lives easier but to automate the bureaucratic processes within the organizations. And, in doing so, try to make them more reliable, put them more under control.

Microsoft Word isn't the product of developers failing to understand how to create documents. It's the result of MS going and looking at the existing kinds of documents in use in the existing bureaucratic processes of hundreds of companies and saying "how do we make it easier to make those?"

ChildAdvocate said...

I found your comments on child soldiers and war very interesting, thought I'd link you back to my blog.