Monthly Archives: March 2008

Using Our Powers For Good

I recently re-read Rebecca Blood’s 2003 BlogTalk presentation: “waging peace: using our powers for good”. It is worth revisiting by anyone who is a blog evangelist or critic. Taking a look at the daily lack of cross linkage on memeorandum.com, unfortunately, it seems almost prophetic.

…People agree most readily with the things they already believe, and everyone has only 24 hours in a day. Because of these two factors, weblogs are too often enclosed in echo-chambers of their own making.

In the book ‘Data Smog’, David Shenk says: ‘Birds of a feather flock virtually together’ and this is certainly true of weblogs. He goes on to say: ‘The problem… is that people are tuning in and becoming informed–but they’re tuning into niche media and they’re acquiring specialized knowledge. As our information supply increases, our common discourse and shared understanding decrease. Technically, we possess an unprecedented amount of information; however, what is commonly known has dwindled to a smaller and smaller percentage every year. This should be a sobering realization for a democratic nation, a society that must share information in order to remain a union.’

Let me add that it’s not just specialized knowledge that we are accessing. It’s news and opinion about current events. The Web has given us the ability to retrieve news accounts from around the world. It used to be that most people got their news from just a few sources. This limited access meant that most of us were evaluating events from a common pool of information about the world, or at least a pool that was common to the people around us. But Web users can choose to get their news from wherever they like. And factual accounts of the same events quite often differ substantially in their wording, emphasis, and in the conclusions they draw. We now have the ability to choose from among news accounts until we find one that we feel gets it right.

Now, I don’t advocate returning to the pre-Web world of local newspapers. But there are consequences to the wide access we have gained.

Democracy depends on groups of people coming to terms with one another, and devising solutions that will address the needs of most, if not all, of its citizens. Even a system like mine, in the United States, where majority rules, cannot afford to completely ignore the needs of anyone not in the winning party. Democracies simply cannot function unless citizens and policy-makers can talk to one another and achieve some sort of common ground in addressing the issues of the day.

However, when people can choose their news and information from an unlimited variety of sources, they usually will choose sources that confirm their pre-existing biases. According to theFolklorist.com, confirmation bias is ‘a tendency on the part of human beings to seek support or confirmation for their beliefs.’ It makes sense, if you think about it. The only basis we have in evaluating any source of information is the set of information–including opinions–that we have already decided is true. Very few people will be inclined to choose primary sources of information that consistently put forth ideas that just seem wrong.

This isn’t deliberate malice. It’s a simple matter of choosing, from the available sources, those that seem most accurate, and those that seem most accurate will always be those that most closely reflect one’s own view of the world. So while the Web, in theory, makes it possible to explore many more points of view than ever before, in practice, few people actually do this to the extent that they can.

Read the whole piece.

Share It When You Can Find It: Investigative Journalism

88 percent of newspaper coverage is ‘churnalism’: rewritten wire copy and PR. Only 12 is derived from reporters initiative or is fact checked.

That’s the state of newspaper journalism in Britain according to what Nick Davies has written in his book “Flat Earth News”. You can read more about “Flat Earth News” in a recent London Review of Books article (via dangerousmeta).

No wonder the majority of Americans no longer trust the media and folks like Jeff Jarvis are making an issue of it.

We have a clue we are being spun. And I bet that niche media’s pursuit of ‘authenticity’ – the practice of wrapping news in greater and greater extremes of opinion to seem ‘genuine’ – folks probably feel at an instinctive level the exploitation.

In this environment, it has become more and more difficult to find investigative journalism you might care about or might need to know about.

There are many initiatives that have sprung up over the past few years that attempt to address how investigative journalism can be pursued, developed, created and funded.

Scott Rosenberg shares his doubts about one of the latest, “ProPublica”, a non-profit driven by some big names in traditional journalism.

Think about a story the Philadelphia Inquirer recently published: “Philadelphia faces shortage of housing for mentally ill”. It was front page of the Local section. Some editor thought that I, as a reader, would find that story interesting or pertinent.

In a world driven purely by linkage, PageRank, traffic counts, and other topic based story algorithm filtering systems – would I see that story? Would that story even be written? Who is its audience?

Think about it. And what it means for your knowledge of others that sit outside your topical or social spheres.

Now I’m not saying that algorithm driven – or crowd driven – news filtering is bad. Far from it.

Nor am I saying that a world where only ‘experts’ provide access to the news stories is good. Again far from it.

But the folks who *do* say one or the other are selling something. And it is at our expense.

Charles Rocks

For most Web-tier development the following Firefox plugins provide me a great set of tools to get my job done:

Lately however, I find myself needing to trick out my local hosts file for more and more work, in addition to needing to change JavaScript script behavior, on the fly, loaded from various hosts.

Charles lets you do that and a whole lot more. It’s become am integral part of my toolbox. It’s worth the license fee.

And its written in Java so your investment is cross-platform. I’ll be migrating to OS-X soon and not needing to find a replacement for this is great.

Google criticized for helping homeless ‘gimmick’

 : who we are:

the things we accept,
those we defend without shame,
reveal who we are.

You would think a company expanding a service that helps homeless get off the streets (by providing them with a consistent means of being contacted) would be a non-controversial thing.

After all, providing one service to the homeless (lets say clothes) doesn’t preclude providing other services (lets say, job training, or housing). And having choices for services isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Thankfully we have a number of service providers for homeless families and individuals in our area.

But you would think wrong.

Both Mathew Ingram and Michael Arrington let Google have it for trumpeting its involvement in San Francisco’s Project Homeless Connect especially when alternatives like Community Voice Mail exist.

In fact, I’d say the verdict from the digerati – overall – was cynical and negative.

All I know is that I wish – I wish – services like these existed when I fought through my bout of living on the streets. I know from experience how important it is to have a steady means of contact when looking for work, dealing with family, or simply finding a place to sleep.

CNet: Google expands free phone number and voicemail project.

Getting Started With Jython

Sun’s hiring of two of the biggest names in Python-land – Ted Leung and Jython’s Frank Wierzbicki – and my experiments with Django – has encouraged me to dip my toes in Jython. Here’s a few decent starting points:

IBM developerWorks: Charming Jython

IBM developerWorks: alt.lang.jre: Get to know Jython

ONJava: Tips for Scripting Java with Jython

JythonWiki: Learning Jython (just starting this one, but this looks most comprehensive)

And of course the home page: The Jython Project

It’s never as simple as either/or

There are far too many who like to paint the future of quality filtered media as either entirely driven by ‘the wisdom of the crowds’ or entirely by ‘the experts and the elite’.

Both these extremist views are wrong as hybrids that combine the best of both have already proven successful and will continue to do so over the long haul, no matter the fashion of the moment.

Newsweek.com: Is User-Generated Content Out? | Newsweek Technology (Stupid)