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Archive for April, 2009

CNN’s got a little piece on the upswing in Rand sales. Their LA Festival of Books booth was a corner booth and much bigger than in previous years.

BUT…

Where was this popularity when Free Market was crashing down?  Right.  So who was at the top of the Amazon Top 50 books then? Exactly.

Ayn Rand books are good books.  Whether they are good or sound strategies for the world, well, you decide.

From the dude at the top of Ayn Rand institute:

“So many people see the parallels with actually what’s going on, with the government taking over the banks, with the government kind of taking over the automobile industry, a president who fires the CEO of a major American corporation. These are the kind of things that come out of ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ ” Brook said.

My opinion… if we’ve written down enough theories of how it should all work  someone is going to be right some of the time.  Marx? Revelations from the Bible? 2012 cults? Hale Bopp? Ayn Rand?

For me, the world is far too complicated to predict the fate of a country, a financial system or the world in a single book or perhaps even all the books.

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eBooks and eReaders are purely functional at this point.  They lack the aesthetics that fine paper, solid bindings, great typesets and full color printing provides.  I love to read aestheticly and functionally.  I love my Kindle 2 AND I love physical books.  No doubt in my mind that eReaders will continue to chip away at physical book sales.  That’s why I’m stocking up now.  Unlike music or newspapers, I think the physicality of the book improves understanding of the content and I need the physical book until eReaders can provide a full sensory experience. (yes, all books SMELL the same on a Kindle!  I know that seems weird, but humans remember things by all senses and smell is one of the most powerful senses involved in memory.  So much of my long term knowledge coming from books is based on remembering the exact reading environment.)

Anyhoo.  Great weekend.  I leave it with an image on one of my favorite finds this weekend:

From So Simple A Beginning

From So Simple A Beginning

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No. Not really.

This is the main reason most new search engines fail.  This is also why refreshes to existing search engines with radical features don’t work particularly well either.

It’s really a misconception that search engines could be made better.  Common discussion suggests one day the search engines will magically find what we need if only someone will write the perfect semantic algorithms or rank pages better.  Other common attempts to improve search include improving the search interface via cleaner design, more links, less links, categorization and so on.  It is all a big fat waste of time.

The web is messy.  It’s mostly unstructured.  Structure is buried in noise and the noise grows very fast. With this ever growing mess,  the search engines do exactly what we all want them to do.  They help users source possibilities.   They take this mass of web pages, databases and media and make it navigable.   The idea of one engine to rule them all is a bit unrealistic, and probably intractable.  Just do a little thought experiment – can you imagine data that is not effectively accessed and navigable via a little search box? I can – Maps.  So we have Google Earth, Maps and other ways of moving through that data.  Images.  Images are better navigated visually (for a variety of reasons, not least of which is characterizing an image in words…)  There are many other examples.

Another way to think of it… search is just a first layer of discovery.  Yes, of course, we can go deeper than a first effort in some search activities, but generally speaking it can only give you a rough cut.  Where is boundary on that?  No one knows and it changes all the time, but it generally is a thin layer compared to the depth one needs to go to really dig into a data set or subject matter.  This limit arises from the noise on the web, the loose structure of hyperlinks, folksomonies and presentation layers.  The limit is also a result of the difficulty in forming short statements that fit in a search box that properly characterize what one is looking for and filter what one doesn’t want to see.

Again, these are not problems.  Search is what it is and it works.  Just as tables of contents, indices, bibliographies, reference librarians, bookmarks, dog ears, post it notes all do what they should and do it well.  We’re never going to need or want fewer ways to navigate and take notes.  The variety is where efficiency lies.

So if you’re waiting around for a Google killer in web search.  Move on.  It ain’t going to happen.  There’s no big enough reason that it would.  What would that mean anyway? [many great search engines exist that are at least as capable as Google…]

Sure you might have someone that competes with Google for ad dollars, but no one is going to compete with in indexing the web and doing your first layer search. There is definitely roomo innovate  and compete with Google in delivering highly targeted, high performance advertising.  There is definitely a way to compete for audience as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and others demonstrate.

Finally, the cost of indexing and mining the web will never get cheaper.  Even though the hardware and bandwidth prices go down the algorithmic methods, spam fighting, and the raw “keeping up with the web” continue to grow.  Perhaps the most important point here is that advertising budgets have nothing to do with these costs.  That is, improvements in the technology, at this point, don’t necessarily equate to a growth in advertising revenue.  This is one reason why it’s probably not feasible to compete in web search and, my hypothesis is, that growing search ad revenue enough to keep up with the costs is going to be almost impossible.  Add to this the idea that there are no more users for search engines to entice into using them.  Everyone that uses search is using Google or the others.  The search companies have to go outside of web search to gain audience.   At some point the existing model for search and search advertising is going to flatten (it might already be doing that).  This further destroys any motivation to innovate in pure web search.

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I completed my Elegance of the Hedgehog experience.  Indeed, this is a heartbreaking story.  It’s more than your average outcast meets cool stranger finds redemption.

The story asks the big question: does life have any meaning?

The book does the only thing you can do with that question… contextualize it, swirl it around, test it.  Ultimately it remains non-answered with a tilt towards “just when you think life does have meaning something happens to make you question it.”

This is book is loaded.

* All humans carry mystical bagage (fate!, rights!, free will!, God’s way!, rain god!)
* Western society romances the truth for children (where there’s a will, there’s a way!)
* Humans do what the environment shapes them to do (social circles, castes, roles in life, culture, family)
* Changing course requires changing the environment (circle of friends, physical change…)
* Beauty is…really hard to define
* Being lonely sucks but false relationships might suck worse
* Intelligence is not an end in itself, it is a biological tool to help us survive

About that last bullet point this passage from page 165-167 haunts me.  And, yes, it’s personal.

“Fascination with intelligence is in itself fascinating, but I don’t think it’s a value in itself. There are tons of intelligent people out there and there are a lot of retards, too.  I’m going to say something really banal but intelligence, in itself, is neither valuable nor interesting.  Very intelligent people have devoted their lives to the question of the sex of angels, for example.  But many intelligent people have a sort of bug: they think intelligence is an end in itself.  They have one idea in mind: to be intelligent, which is really stupid. And when intelligence takes itself for its own goal, it operates very strangley: the proof that it exists is not to be found in the ingenuity or simplicity of what it produces, but in how obscurely it is expressed… It is not a sacred gift, it is a primate’s only weapon.”

Ouch.  This is what I mean about this book non-answering the big questions.  The author drives a stake through intelligence as a good to possess and recasts it as the simple tool it is. AND… here we are reading a philosophical book with poetic characters that wax about the meaning of life and profound thoughts!

So… is it just a biological weapon? and if so, how is this book a wielding of that weapon?

This is a trickier question than it might seem regardless of your take on the matter.

And on that note… I’m going to a giant book festival now to wield my weapon and probably keep this pathological search for meaning going for another day. and maybe that’s just it.  if I stopped looking for or ceased creating meaning, how would I survive?

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This is genius.

Kudos to the editor who thought that one up.

I cannot begin to tell you the insight I gained from this.  Can you believe there are people that sit on Facebook all the time? Can you believe people would rather stare at their computer screen and leer at the human zoo that is social media than interact in the real world?

“Last Friday, I had three clients in my office with Facebook problems,” said Paula Pile, a marriage and family therapist in Greensboro, North Carolina. “It’s turned into a compulsion — a compulsion to dissociate from your real world and go live in the Facebook world

The funny thing is… remember when it was all about MySpace addiction and before that AOL Chatrooms.  I guess you know a company / media thang has jumped the shark when therapists are no longer accepting patients for an addiction with your brand associated with it.

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Perhaps my eariler post today wasn’t your company.. but is this more like it?

Nice animation!

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In world full of fossils, the slightest movement of a pebble on the slope of the cliff is nearly enough to bring on a whole series of heart attacks–so you can imagine what happens when someone dynamites the whole mountain!

– Taken from page 139 of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

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Oy, the pop psychologists and media sociologists are out in full force on the latest pop culture sensation, Susan Boyle.

Read all the theories in those links.

  • don’t judge a book by its cover
  • ordinary people do extraordinary things
  • it’s a disney movie
  • we all have hidden desires for the same thing as Boyle
  • etc.

Blah! Blargh!

Try an experiment.  Only listen to her singing.  Do not listen to the audience or the commentary.  You will not have the same reaction – the crying, the emotion, the anger at the judges…  This is an actual experiment we could do.  Take 2 groups who have not seen the video or know about the story and have them watch different contextual versions of the performance.

We are conditioned by the entire context.  If the audience and judges aren’t laughing at her and giving standing Os, the performance is ordinary and our reaction will likely not be the one that drives a YouTube sensation.  When others around us are laughing, crying, making fun… we get into that action.  When the context then shows surprise and amazement we do too.   This is less about Susan Boyle’s surprise talent than it is about the surprise of the audience.

No doubt she can sing, but millions of people can sing.  No doubt she’s not going to win a beauty contest, millions of people won’t and can still sing.  The situation is not uncommon, nor is our reaction.

Combine the context with our own  behavioral histories… we have been conditioned to have reactions like we do to this (but when others are having the same reaction!).  Cheer for the underdog, laugh at the ugly person and slap her back when she crushes it, gossip about a celebrity’s troubles but cheer her return,  damaged goods done good, hooray!, ugly duckings/swan thang.  This is the most common human story ever told and we tell it to our children from the day they are born.  The thing is, the reaction of that audience is still the key to having our histories ignited.  If the audience sorta half likes it and the judges have poker faces and say “cliche song”, Susan Boyle is still the ugly duckly.   Most everyone needs to see the swan, for it to be a swan to us.

The success of Boyle is not a mystery.  It’s not a phenomenon.  It’s your run of the mill context meets shared histories often makes a wave….

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It’s a safe assumption that every newspaper and publisher has access to the basic data created and shared by the world.  Newspapers and publishers can use Freebase or Wikipedia or some other aggregator/syndication service to fill their websites and their papers full of content.  The race for coverage and exclusives is over – every outlet can cover everything simply by mashing it all up.

This availability of all data by all outlets has ruined the differentiation between local papers, category specific publications and most hobbyist content providers.  It used to matter who the editor in chief knew, which city a publisher was in, how fast the vans could get to the scene or whether the product makers liked a publisher’s reviewers.  The ability to get and cover content competitors couldn’t drove audience.  Now, search engine optimizations, clever traffic arbitrage schemes and integration with portals are the drivers of audience for most traditional publishers.  This is a short lived game though – for a variety of reasons.  The main reason is that it’s too hard to compete – everyone is competing for the top spot in Google for the most important searches.  The portals can only feature a small set of links every day. The arbitrage schemes are played out by a great many players, and money talks more than anything else.

The winning strategy involves Synthesis.   “Just the facts, mam” doesn’t cut it.  Interpretation, analysis, synthesis of the causal webs, related ideas, the context, the history.  All of that done via interactive visuals like timelines, charts, trends, projections, simulations.  Every which way to expose fresh takes.

Synthesis still takes unique perspective and skilled people.  Synthesis is what creates shared understanding – i.e. knowledge.  Publishers need to get out of the data business and into the knowledge business.   Knowledge is defensible, data is not.  Knowledge is worth paying for, data is not.  Advertising tangled with knowledge performs, advertising with data distracts.

Are there examples of good synthesis?

It’s rare.

I don’t think cable TV does a great job of synthesis.  Most talking heads are just creating noisy data.  Good synthesis provides insight, demands more questions, finds connections.  Yahoo News doesn’t. Google News doesn’t.

Edge.org does alright.  The Economist usually.  WSJ still does a good job with synthesizing.  CNN, occasionally.  Go to these websites, they aren’t just the data regurgitated. And they are rewarded with traffic.

This isn’t limited to news. Science information, entertainment, business intelligence, weather, and more all need synthesis.   Consider the spread of Compete.com and Quantcast.com versus Alexa.  Alexa didn’t really synthesize the numbers into useful trends, audience slices or any more useful view.

You get the point.  Enough of the “information age”, let’s bring about the synthesis age.  Therein lies the value publishers can bring to consumers.

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From AC Grayling:

My final question is about the way we’re going to be reading, communicating and reflecting in the future. At the moment, we’re all very interested to know about the future in these respects. Not the future of the book specifically, although it has traditionally been one major focus for the reflective life – sustaining it, enabling communication between participants in it – because already we see the trend that there are different ways in which written content can be delivered to people who want it. Rather I mean the practice of reading, the practice of reflection, themselves; I mean the nature of what underlies our ability to be good conversationalists with one another, to be reflective and informed, to have a good knowledge of the classics, but also to be open to new ideas and new work across all the disciplines — history, the sciences, philosophy, and the literary arts. How are people going to relate to these things in the future, given that in the past this centrally involved reading and reflecting?

This is an interesting question because in the past our culture has been one that depends tremendously on the written word, on literature in all its forms. If the way that the written word gets to people changes in ways that make people use it less, and this is a phenomenon becoming more widespread now — formulating ideas and communicating them in very compressed forms, as in text messages for example — that kind of phenomenon might make a difference to our cultural sensibility.

Read the whole conversation.

This conversation covers a lot of ground from reflection, scientific progress, tabloid culture and civil liberties.  Time to read and reflect.

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