furia furialog · Every Noise at Once · New Particles · The War Against Silence · Aedliga (songs) · photography · other things
6 January 2006 to 30 November 2005

Luna, putting the finishing touches on an early interpretation of a false sense of security.  


Moki, compiling entry 237 in his bouncingly expanding encyclopedia of whether each object in our house is best suited to hiding under, pouncing on or falling off of.  

Adopted 5 Jan 06, birthdays (celebrated) 5 Oct 05.  

I'll get their email accounts set up by the end of the day.  

[Later]  


I guess they're settling in OK.
i can't really blame my mail program for thinking that a message beginning "Dear Sirs, I am an Eglish beef farmer with a young nephew who plays the fiddle" was probably spam.
I'm just settling into public-transportation commuting again, and I just read The Tipping Point, which has a chapter on the application of the broken-window principle to the subway in New York. The original observation is that in an environment where windows get broken frequently and are not fixed promptly, people are ambiently encouraged to act as if order is likely to be unenforced and inapplicable in other ways, as well. This makes somewhat better sense phrased the other way around: in an environment where obvious attention is paid to the smallest details of physical maintenance, people also tend to take the formal and informal social rules more seriously. In New York a rigorous campaign against subway-car graffiti and fare-jumping ended up causing (it is theorized) a dramatic decline in all kinds of crime on the subway. I was also recently in petty-crime-free Tokyo, where a whole host of social patterns are different, but among other things the subways and trains are operated to obvious exacting standards.  

Thus I am hyper-aware of what seems like an increasingly out-of-control plague of disrepair on the MBTA. Equipment as simple and presumably componentized as turnstiles and card-readers breaks routinely and goes unapologetically unrepaired for weeks. Torn seats are treated with electrical tape. Stair treads wear through the rubber to metal, and then rust through the metal to dank holes. Dismantled escalators sit in oily piles surrounded by desultorily drooping perimeters of creased caution ribbon. Floors are coated with a layer of grime that turns into viscous, clinging ooze in the gray ground-water that leaks out of the walls under the slightest weather provocation. Misaligned train wheels screech and clatter. The next-destination PA systems are usually off, and at least a third of the time when they're on they're unintelligibly garbled or simply wrong. The Authority publishes an official bulletin itemizing all the stations whose elevators are not operating, and it's only a matter of time until somebody notices that it would be more efficient to reverse this and list the ones that are.  

To be fair, though, the MBTA is really in no worse shape than any other aspect of the public infrastructure in Boston. The streets are poorly maintained, and traffic flow is irrational, largely unmanaged and often systemically unmanageable. Only the largest highways and smallest side-streets are reliably labeled, making virtually any navigation process into frustratingly inevitable trial-and-error. A constant flow of crap and its packaging debris spews out of fast-food and donut shops into pasty, lumbering bodies and onto the crumbly sidewalks, and in the winter it melds with minimally displaced snow to form rancid heaps as if the sewers are extruding sores up through the city's skin. SUVs sprawl out of cramped spaces in unrealistically lined parking lots, and their drivers swerve right out of left lanes, and vice versa, without turning the head to which one hand is holding their cellphone. The city could barely be more ruthlessly segregated by a formal initiative, the Red Sox fairy-tale has surrendered to the Yankee dollar, the record stores are just waiting to die, and in the winter it's really too damn cold.  

So, OK, maybe it's my tipping point I'm really approaching. But if I'm losing this city, I'm getting plenty of help.
 

glenn's: gold and Gibeon meteorite
Beth's: gold and Damascus steel  

Made and modeled by Bethany Ericson, December 2005.  

Designed, mentored, assisted and photographed by Chris Ploof.  
 

Superheroes at work:  

A while ago I mentioned CapitalOne's perpetual-finance-charge machine. At the time I'd just gotten off my second call to get them to stop pettily half-dollaring me, and had been promised that the problem was solved.  

Not only was it not solved, but where the first call had produced a $.49 credit that failed to counteract a $.50 charge, the second call ended up yielding nothing. The following month's statement contained no credit, and yet another $.50 finance charge. So I called again, this time explaining the original problem and the two failed attempts to fix it. This third call produced a $.52 credit, which wasn't the right amount but at least showed they were trying to catch up. I deliberately overpaid my bill for that period by a few dollars, too, figuring that at least I could eliminate the extra charge by brute force.  

But that didn't work, either. The next statement showed the $.52 credit and my overpayment, but yet another $.50 charge. On my fourth call I simply demanded to speak to a supervisor directly, and refused to get off the phone with that supervisor until they could convince me that 1) they really understood the problem, 2) they understood and could explain why the first three attempts to fix it didn't work, and 3) they had the power and the will to fix it themselves, personally, directly, and by "fix it" I mean "fix it", not "submit a request to have it fixed" or "credit me some other random amount in the hopes that that will fix it".  

Supervisor LQ54 did, in fact, do a credible job on #s 1 and 2. Purchases and cash advances are tracked separately, and those $.49 and $.52 credits had apparently been misapplied to my purchase balance, not my cash-advance balance. He claimed to be zeroing out my cash-advance balance directly, and then separately applying a $1.49 credit for the accumulation of unreversed charges. I couldn't verify this myself in real-time, but neither was there anything further he could tell me that would increase my confidence, so I'll see when the next statement comes.  

But even if my problem is now solved, the underlying behavior is bad. It looks to me like if you ever take out a cash advance on your CapitalOne card (and remember that in this case the whole thing was started by a vendor processing a payment as a cash advance without my awareness), they will immediately begin charging you self-perpetuating fees that cannot be eliminated by any combination of paying in full, overpaying, and normal complaints and credits. If you don't pay your bills in full, and thus have other finance charges anyway, this may be increasing your fees without you having any realistic way of noticing. The magnitude of the effect is small for any individual customer, but how large for CapitalOne as a whole? And at what point does this move from accounting anomaly to negligent design to systemic fraud?
I think of Social Darwinism as a paradigmatic intelletual error, confusing description with prescription, and natural existence with social morality. There is a Social-Darwinist extreme to software-design philosophy, too, in which it is sometimes hoped that sufficient iterations of usability testing can obviate the need for design decisions of any other sort.  

But evolution is slow, and its power should not be confused with efficiency or completeness. Iterative testing and adjustment is good for identifying and (sometimes) addressing specific execution errors, but largely useless for assessing conceptual shortcomings, much less missed opportunities and possible transformations.  

As a software designer, then, I'm basically a Social Creationist. I believe in people inventing things, and asking strange questions, and guessing and aspiring. I believe in experimentation as an artistic act more fundamentally than a mathematical one. I believe that you can accomplish far greater things by trying to tell your audience an inspiring and surprising new story of themselves than by the constant diligence of patching up the holes in the stories they have long since begun to wear out.  
 

And thus it occurs to me to wonder whether this opposition between evolution and creation, between the crawling struggle against entropy and the wildest wish to fly, doesn't pivot, of its own nature (or ours), around the axis between how we believe our environment is and how our society should be. Perhaps survival and intent are conserved in our beliefs. If you think the natural world was created in all its particulars by gods as living pedagogy, then it makes manifestly good sense to also believe that the subsequent operations of that created system are themselves intended and thus not to be much interfered with, and excessively detailed study of them is most likely to be a precursor to some evil. If you believe that the natural world is not authored, then the responsibility for morality falls entirely to its inhabitants, and every fevered curiosity is a spasm towards informing our own decisions by understanding their context and consequences.  

As therein lies the soul of our greatest impasses: some of us are trying to account for thermodynamics and live better before we die, and some of us are crossing our fingers and counting on the Rapture.
My online information life is easily complicated enough for me to be sure that our current tools and models for how a person relates to information connectivity are still wildly immature. "Web 2.0" is a hopelessly inadequate vision of the future because the separation of "Web" as its own world is exactly part of the problem. My email, chat, feed-reading and web-browsing software perform intently interrelated (to me) communication and monitoring functions with a magnificent (to them) disregard for each other, and often for me. Only slightly less glaringly, but of increasing significance, my information publishing activities (both conventional and micro-) go on in a similarly near-complete isolation from my information consumption.  

What I need, and what everyone will need before the net can be considered an inclusive participatory extension of human social communication, is a much simpler, more straightforward and more agile mapping of system tools onto the four fundamental components of information interaction:  

- My information.  

- Distribution of my information to others.  

- Monitoring the flow of other people's information.  

- Consumption of other people's information (including connecting it back to my information).  

At the moment, this whole cycle is a mess.  
 

Information  

At the moment there are marginally acceptable tools only for the most tightly constrained special-case forms of information creation. I think person-to-person email is now mature enough, for example, that the nature of the tool set isn't excluding anybody who would otherwise be eligible, although obviously economics, technology and literacy still post significant obstacles to many people getting to use those tools in the first place. As soon as you try to raise the level of function and abstraction above the individual message to or from a known correspondent, though, the tools begin to show their limitations. Communicating with groups is cumbersome. Communicating with strangers is almost systemically incapacitating. Carrying on extended or episodic conversations is difficult, and relating the accumulating bodies of correspondence to the personal relationships they nominally express and inform is so poorly supported by the tools that I suspect most users effectively do not retain any value from their electronic interpersonal correspondence outside of their own heads.  

Nothing beyond email is even remotely comparable in developmental maturity. There are individually decent tools for extremely rudimentary self-publishing in the forms of simple streams of text and photos, and anything beyond that falls off into the usable domain of a vanishingly tiny minority of participants.  

Of course, arguably the only mature pre-connectivity computer function was ever unstructured word-processing, anyway, and if creating and managing structured information for their own purposes is beyond most users, then it hardly matters that there are no easy publishing methods awaiting that information. And thus any new concepts of syndicating a user's own information out to external forums, or re-consolidating distributed contributions back into central management and retention, don't even have a foundation on which to build.  

Thus it seems to me that the first thing we really need, underneath all of these tools and before we really start talking about communication at all, is an underlying data system, as opposed to (but just as native and optimized and standardized as) a file system. All our information creation tools should be manufacturing data, not files, and always with the bias towards representing that data in the most application-neutral, self-describing, reusable and standardized way (like Elemental XML, for example, or some isomorph). It should not only be effortless to exchange information between, for a crashingly trivial example, iTunes and Excel and your blog sidebar, but more than that, the way everyone (people and systems alike) should be thinking about the process is that the data exists independent of all the applications that merely happen to manipulate it and give it back.  
 

Distribution  

Possibly this is just a function of my own egotism and information-retentitive nature, but I continue to think that my information system should remember my information first, and send it elsewhere second. Moreover, I think that ultimately we will understand that email is merely a historically earlier-understood instance of the same general distribution problem as blog publishing, photo sharing, restaurant-review syndication, collaborative filtering and everything else. Put another way, general information publishing/sharing tools must mature to the point that they accomplish the personal-correspondence special-case as easily as (and preferably more easily than) our current single-purpose email tools.  

The large conceptual shift that needs to take place in the rest of the information world, as the new storage model makes it possible, is away from the assumption that a sharing format is necessarily an authoring environment. Collaborative tagging, for example, would be much more effective if annotation was a native function whose results could also be shared. Sharing (including full privacy control) should be an elemental function of the underlying data system, so that (for example) you don't "export" or "upload" a photograph to Flickr and then assign it tags and descriptions and sets, you tag and describe and group photos for your own purposes, and then choose some of them to share via a particular online medium.  
 

Monitoring  

Although several different ideas commingle in the current state of RSS/Atom feeds, the two most-central innovations are the provision of an automatic monitoring framework for the otherwise manually-browsed web, and the creation of a parallel lowest-common-denominator content format to go with the style- and context-heavily publishing forms used on the web.  

These will need to be disentangled, because the monitoring function properly belongs to a higher level. A conversation should not be constrained to different monitoring tools because it happens to take place in email, or on a mailing list, or in a group real-time conference or in the comment thread of a blog. Just as all the forms of content sharing should arise from a common creation and storage framework, we need a general form of monitoring that subsumes the current functions (and far exceeds the current usability) of email inboxes and filtering, IM buddy lists and presence, on-screen bezel/pop-up notification, RSS updates, menubar/Dashboard/system-tray widgets, SMS alerts and even web-browsing history and general read/unread flagging. For the new monitoring system we must figure out significantly better ways of understanding a user's dynamic segmentation of their monitoring needs along the continuum between urgent active notification and ongoing passive tracking. Ultimately I want a single console to watch, or more precisely a single logical console that can take multiple particular forms tailored to my different mental and physical modes, and adjust its common reporting to the subtly and radically differing natures of particular information sources.  
 

Consumption  

The corresponding evolution in information consumption, as is almost implicit in the other parts of the system, is that consumption is not really separate at all. What you read can be as much a part of your information flow as what you write, and the nature of your relationship to what you read should not change based on the incidental mechanics of the medium. The same human conversation could take place on IM, in email or on a web site; the same options for retaining and correlating and re-using should be available in all those cases. At the moment the tools for bookmarking web pages are only narrowly adequate, and the tools for usably retaining web information are nearly non-existent. We email ourselves web pages; this should prove that there's something very important missing.  

And, too, as we are only barely starting to understand with tagging and blogging, what I read flows into what I write, and into all kinds of information that I create implicitly and may or may not want to use and share. Conversations and connections flow through all this information, or try to. The new information world will understand and encourage and benefit from this flow.  

The new information world will be formed of this flow.
Nothing takes the smug fun out of ridiculing botched Asian translations into English faster than actually trying to learn to produce botched English translations into any of their langauges.
At work I have stubbornly insisted on using Outlook Express in POP3 mode long after (even pre-acquisition) the rest of the organization switched to Outlook and all its Exchange baggage. One of my favorite effects of this is that since my email is simply downloaded to my PC, I am immune to the Belated Ass-Covering function. An Exchange sender can issue a "message recall", which causes the recalled email to silently vanish out of cooperative Outlook users' mailboxes. In Outlook Express, however, the original message stays where it is, and I get a separate plaintively ungrammatical text note. It looks (with names changed) like this:  

Brady, Jon would like to recall the message, "top totty".

Usually I, or my filters, have already deleted the message, but a recall attempt suggests that it's worth fishing it out of the trash folder to take a look. When there are three copies of the recall, it means Jon Brady would really, really, really like to recall this message.  

If anybody in IT is monitoring recalls, Jon Brady is going to be recalling "top totty" for a very long and painful while, as he is now even more thoroughly fucked than the two women in the long series of photographs he forwarded. Normally it is sufficient to mention Rule 1 of corporate email-system use, which is "Never use your corporate email system to send pornography." Sadly, some people require the appending of Rule 2, which is "If you do, try really hard not to accidentally BCC a mailing list that reaches all 18,000 employees in the entire company." And, in this memorable case, Rule 3: "If you do insist on BCCing the entire company while forwarding explicit pornography, it is courteous to remove the incriminating trail of previous forwarders, especially the dozen or so soon-to-be-former friends who are fellow employees of the company from which you, and now they, are about to be fired."  

PS, just to be sure, Rule 4: "If you find this sequence funny enough, or the pornography good enough, to want to save the evidence, don't keep it on your work computer, and don't use the corporate email system to forward it somewhere else."
Site contents published by glenn mcdonald under a Creative Commons BY/NC/ND License except where otherwise noted.