Friday, October 29, 2010

A small point I neglected to draw out in the previous post

"Things that make the web useful" (searchability, among other things) and "things that make the web engrossing" (cross-linking, among other things) are two distinct categories, though with at least some overlap.  "Things that make the web popular" is yet a third, comprising most of the other two.

This pattern can't be unique to the web.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Falling into the web

I don't even remember exactly how it happened, except that I happened to follow a link from Wikipedia, but I managed to end up entangled in TV Tropes. Apparently I'm not alone.

If you haven't visited it already, be warned: This is one of the more potent timesinks out there.  Thinly masquerading as a collection of motifs and plot devices from television, it's really a compendium of archetypes from all sorts of fiction, clearly and wittily explicated and extensively cross-linked.  The piece on William Shatner alone is worth the price of admission, as is the Evil Overlord List.  Think Joseph Campbell meets Wikipedia meets Remote Control.

Somewhere around the Space Whale Aesop, the obvious occurred to me: It's the extensive cross-linking, that is, the webbiness of the site, that makes it so addictive (that, and there dependably being something worth reading at the other end of the link).  A little bit later (Fridge Logic?) it occurred to me that really webby sites like TV tropes are relatively rare.  Yes, most blogs include links, but mostly external links.  Even Wikipedia isn't as densely linked as TV Tropes (or at least it doesn't feel like it).

In fact, I find a large part of my web experience consists either of directly visiting a favorite site, or doing a search and then following a small number of links to what I'm looking for.  Most of the time, I'm using the web to find some particular piece of information, not to browse at random.  Nothing wrong with browsing at random -- it's just not my main mode.

As essential as links are to the web, they may not be its most essential feature.  If links went away tomorrow and individual sites were flattened into giant, unwieldy documents, it would still be possible to find useful information via your favorite search engine.  If search engines went away instead, no one would be able to find much of anything.  Furthermore, if search engines had never existed, sites would be much less richly linked than they are now, because authors would have been less able to find good links.  Searchability supports links at least as much as the other way round.

In short, search engines may well be more important than links, except when it comes to a particular digressive mode of chasing links to see where they go [But then, I would say that after a few months at Google, wouldn't I? -- D.H. Dec 2015].

Monday, October 18, 2010


My phone is not particularly well suited to texting, but for various reasons I've found myself doing more of it lately.  Even beyond the basic problem of typing on a chiclet keyboard with fingers that did some of their first typing on an Underwood manual, there are a couple of challenges.

For one, I'm used to writing complete sentences, so I find myself compulsively and pointlessly going back and fixing spelling mistakes, checking punctuation and so forth.  Mind, I don't have anything against the usual abbreviations and casual spellings. I doubt it's a sign that the language has gone to pot or that Kids These Days don't learn anything.  More likely it's a sign that full and careful spelling is just not worth the effort if you can get your message across more quickly without it.

The upshot is that I text much, much more slowly than I write.  I'd guess at least four times as slowly and very likely closer to eight or ten [re-reading in 2015, I note that I'm able to text much faster now, with a smartphone and keyboard app, and the character limit is much less visible.  I think my texting is somewhat less terse now, but the overall point of texting technology influencing texting style still stands, I think -- D.H.].  An order of magnitude in quantity generally means a change in quality and this is no different.  Working at such a slow speed, I find every word counts, as typing another is just too much bother.

Side note: Once I was at a conference where computer graphics legend Jim Blinn presented his first ray-traced picture.  Ray-tracing is a technique that carefully follows rays of light through every pixel of the picture, as opposed to the classic "polygon pushing" technique, which Blinn helped pioneer and which is still in wide use today because of its speed.  Polygon pushing determines which surfaces are visible and draws them (more or less directly), saving a bunch of time.  Blinn claimed that one of the nice aspects of ray-tracing was that since it was so slow, around eight hours per frame in that case, as I recall, you had plenty of time to think about what was going to be in the image.

Just so, slowing down to text gives much more time to think about a short message.  I'm sure the situation is different for experienced texters, but even then another factor comes into play: SMS's draconianly (and more or less artificially) short message length.  If you're tweeting, it doesn't matter if you're sitting at your desk typing full steam ahead, or picking out words while squinting at a cell phone, or rattling away with thumbs of lightning.  140 bytes is 140 bytes.

Way back in the early days of electronic communication networks, people sending messages faced a similar problem.  I'm not aware of any particular length restriction on telegraph messages, but for decades telegraph messages had to be transmitted, by hand, in morse code.  As a result every word was expensive -- and punctuation was conveyed in words, notably STOP for a period.  To cope with this, customers developed a concise "telegraphic" style in order to make every word count.

Technology doesn't just enable.  It also constrains, and the effects of such constraint can be just as interesting.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Defending your reputation (for a small fee)

Some time back, when I had a somewhat different vision of this blog, I ruminated about how one might model reputation.  Whether or not the model is any good, taking some time to think about what reputation might be was a useful exercise.  Re-reading the posts in that thread, one of the more useful observations was:
We try to control our reputations (at least)
  • through our actions
  • by controlling access to information about us
  • by influencing people's interpretation of the information (we think) we know
Of those, we have the most control over the first, though perhaps more effort is devoted to the third.  The second has its own special quirk:  It's possible for information to disappear from the web, if all permanent copies can be removed, but the safe assumption is that information only accumulates.

Nonetheless, there are companies in the business of helping people control access to information, and thereby their reputations.  A fool's errand?  Probably not.  There are several services that reputation protection services can and do provide:

  • Monitoring what you look like on the web.  If someone posts something slanderous about you, you may not find out until it's too late, unless you're constantly monitoring the web -- or have someone doing it for you.
  • There are various online lists and databases that you can sometimes have your personal details purged from, but who has the time?
  • You can't erase information from the web, particularly if it's a rumor that's already spread far and wide, but you can respond and try to counter it.  In this sense, protecting a reputation is just old-fashioned PR.
  • If you choose to, say, put all your purchases and reading selections and reading up for your friends to peruse, you might want to use a different identity to mention that you're reading World Domination in Six Easy Evil Steps or to purchase that 1.21 gigawatt laser.  But if you don't already know that, a service may not be of much help.
What's less clear to me is how much any of this is worth to private individuals.  If your ex has just posted those embarrassing videos of you from the last christmas party, it's not going to help much to learn about it in a report form your reputation service.  It would seem it's the PR function that's most useful in such cases, but unless you're directly in the public eye you probably don't have call for that.   If you do need it, you're not going to get it online for a small monthly fee.

I'd liken it to search engine optimization.  If you're doing serious business online, you definitely want it, along with real marketing expertise.  If you're blogging in a web.backwater, probably not so much.

Or so I hope.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

"The computer knows"

The other day someone asked me whether it was supposed to be cold out that week.  I didn't know offhand.  "That's OK," they said, "I'll check the computer.  The computer knows."

It occurred to me that if someone were trying to convince a skeptical public back in the 80s that this whole "personal computer" thing was really going places, and that person were allowed just one ten-second glimpse into the faraway world of 2010 to show the audience, they would probably give their eyeteeth for that particular glimpse.    Ditto for a budding AI researcher.

Except ... the viewer from thirty years ago would naturally take "the computer knows" at face value.  Computers in the 21st century would be so fast and so smart that the personal computer in the kitchen could predict the weather.

Today, by contrast, we don't generally assume that computers "know" much of anything, but we do assume that they can easily direct us to someone who does, in this case the people at a weather service.  Granted, said forecasters are making use of computers that, as far as computing power, could swallow an 80s-era supercomputer whole without a hiccup.  Nonetheless, we don't assume that our own computers could do any such thing, or even that a supercomputer is so omnipotent as to make weather forecasters redundant.

That's the difference between having a PC and being on the web.  The primary function of most computing devices -- personal computers, phones, netbooks, routers, etc. -- is communication.  That's not to say that computers aren't essential in producing and cataloging data, but data is only useful if you can get to it.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

What did I mean, "web before the web"?

I badly mis-titled my previous post.

The point I was trying to make was that the ability to sit down at a computer and do many of the things we now associate with the web, and the idea that there was good money to be made in providing that ability, both predate the Web As We Know It.  Fair enough, but calling that "the web before the web" is just wrong.  There was very little webby about it.

What makes the web the web?  The ability to link from one site to another, that is, the good old http:// link we all know and love.  In the 80s you could connect to a remote site.  With some applications (for example HyperCard, though it wasn't the first) you could chase links between and within documents on the same computer.  UUCP and Usenet also predate the web, allowing email and news to flow between systems (including some BBSs).  And, of course, the internet itself was around, so some people at least could connect to more than one system without signing off and dialing in again.

Nonetheless, the essential feature of the web, the idea that you could seamlessly follow a link in one online document to an online document hosted by a different system, had not yet arrived.  Without that, no web.

Memory lane and the web before the web

Unpacking some boxes of books, I ran across The MC6809 Cookbook.  The '09 was a very nicely-designed Motorola CPU with a clean and well-regarded instruction set.  In the event, the Motorola family, including the 680x0 family of 16-bit processors, ended up playing Betamax, with Intel's 8080 and 80x86 family playing the role of VHS.

Actually, that's not fair to Motorola, given that the 68K architecture is still in production and use.  It's not necessarily fair to Intel either, as one can certainly argue that the x86 architecture, for all its quirks, actually makes the right trade-offs.  Being a software guy, I'm not going to dive much deeper than that.  I'm probably already in over my head.

The book is a typical technical book of the time (1981), talking about about pinouts, voltage levels and evaluation boards along with the basics of twos-complement and the details of the instruction set.  It includes a description of the language VTL (Very Tiny Language), whose runtime fits in 768 bytes -- considerably less than this post -- complete with code listings.  The one for Conway's game of life "takes at least 2K of memory to operate satisfactorily," so be sure you've got that RAM upgrade installed.

Towards the beginning of the book, during the obligatory drumming-up of how great the processor is, is the boast that the '09 "was recently incorporated into what will more than likely become the small computer system of the decade ..."

Any guesses?

"... the Radio Shack TRS-80 Videotex."

No,  that's not the classic (Z80-based) TRS-80 that I first learned to hack on.  It's not (exactly) the TRS-80 Color Computer (the "CoCo"), though that did use the '09.  It's basically a dedicated box for dialing in to servers run by news sources and such, and it basically fell quietly off the face of the earth (Videotex did well in France, but they had their own box).

So why make such a fuss -- and the major players at the time did make a fuss -- over such a thing?  Well, while seeing how many Google hits I could get for TRS-80 Videotex (about 8000), I ran across this page on, which in turn quotes an article in TRS-80 Microcomputer News. The author of the quoted article describes the rush of using his CoCo to dial in and get late-breaking sports, news and all manner of interesting information, and even send "electronic mail" to other Compu$erve users.

I remember spending inordinate amounts of time in the early 80s on a local BBS (Hi, Keith!) chatting, emailing and playing games, nearly a decade before TimBL put up the first web server.  Clearly there was something to the whole concept.

So, right idea, nearly the right time, but not quite.  It's one thing to say "this whole online thing could get big," quite another to work out how it will happen, and another thing entirely to place a winning bet on a particular product.  As Warren Buffett said in the 2009 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder's letter (before he said "come and shop at all our businesses"):
In the past, it required no brilliance for people to foresee the fabulous growth that awaited such industries as autos (in 1910), aircraft (in 1930) and television sets (in 1950). But the future then also included competitive dynamics that would decimate almost all of the companies entering those industries. Even the survivors tended to come away bleeding.