Why are blogs working?

Life is funny, you’ll work like a dog on something, and it will just plain won’t work. And once in a while, a very simple concept will just work. I think that research and life has more to do with luck, as in “try many things and hope that something will work”, rather than pure intellect. Which is why I think that centralized, authoritarian systems are doomed to failure. And I think it also explains why the Americans, with their relatively free flowing class structure are eating up the rest of the world. Build all the castles you want, and force people to be your servants… but you’ll never be able to compete with a loosely controlled community. This doesn’t mean anarchy works: I said loosely controlled, not out-of-control.

This also means that as a researcher, you shouldn’t be too focused. I didn’t write that you should be unfocused… but don’t be narrow. You might get lucky and hit gold even if you had a single target, but maybe that will just be luck.

I found this post called A Partially Definitive But Slightly Abstract Guide To Why Blogs Are So Successful through a post by Seb. I really like some of the comments:

  • Blogs are “person-centric not place-centric”. In this day and age where you’ll probably have 20 different employers in your life, go through 20 different cities… who wants to be place-centric? Universities have to take this into account. They should stop assuming that their students are their students. They aren’t. Just like banks realized some years ago that because you had a bank account with the Royal Bank, you might not have a VISA card from them. People are not loyal nor should they be. Realize this and the students will love you. In practice, this means that instead of trying to fit students into a mold, they should put the students as much in control as they can. Universities that get this will win.
  • “Don’t Try And Make The Computer Do Things It Can’t And We Can” : I’m all for Knowledge Management (KM) research and I consider myself to be a KM researcher, but I know that computers can’t do KM. They just can’t. We should stop fooling around. Humans do KM and until computers get much, much, much improved, they won’t do KM. We have to let the humans be in charge, always. Software is there to help humans with KM, but it doesn’t do KM.

Turning the fight for Linux up one level

The Open Source Initiative just published its Halloween XI. The Halloween documents started from an internal memo issued by Microsoft in 1998. This was the very first time Microsoft noticed the Linux threat. Back then, they were relatively calm about it but made the following statement:

Loosely applied to the vernacular of the software industry, a product/process is long-term credible if FUD tactics can not be used to combat it. OSS [open source software] is Long-Term Credible.

This was 6 years ago. This year, they are organizing meetings in various cities to convince people not to switch to Linux. In many ways, Microsoft is losing this war against Linux, against us. They went from internal meetings, to ads, and now they are touring countries.

Microsoft crushed everything else in the software industry and made Bill Gates the richest man in the world. But they finally met something they couldn’t, wouldn’t crush the same way. Make no mistake about it: Microsoft will lose, Microsoft will fail. Not this year, not next year, but soon. They must fail.

Gates built his empire by noticing that he could sell software whereas people had been freely sharing software. Indeed, why sell what can be copied freely? Whereas most people saw software as something that had to be shared, Gates saw a nearly infinite source of revenue. And he took it for himself.

Gates’ vision has profound consequences which seems to espace most people. It might seem to be a small issue whether you store your data in a Microsoft forward and lock your work in Microsoft software… After all, who cares? Microsoft products are relatively inexpensive and well supported, so often, it is much easier to go with Microsoft… why bother fighting the system? Why indeed.

Suppose tomorrow we would have machines able to freely copy food. Suppose someone said no, this ought to be illegal, I can use this machine but everyone else has to pay for the food. We would think this individual was mad. Well, that’s what the software industry is: people who own food creating machine and they keep it for themselves. Food might not be as vital as software, but it is nevertheless quite vital in our century. Software is humanity’s future. We may soon be able to produce goods in a similar fashion. Buy one nanotech machine and it can generate any goods you want for very cheap as long as you can input the proper software into it. Are we going to allow a few people to take control of software? of our future?

I’m not advocating your break the law and copy Microsoft software. Don’t break the law. Copy software though: copy Linux everywhere you can. Because software is weatlh and by copying it you make humanity wealthier.

Need for increasingly poweful tools as cyberspace grows

Thanks to Internet, it is possible for a musician in Bolivia to be listened to in Toronto. My blog is read by people in Brezil. However, there is a very serious threat on this brave new world: that individuals and small communities get lost in the ever increasing noise. Just think about how progressively less reliable and useful email has become. I think this is partly a technology issue: we need increasingly poweful tools as cyberspace grows.

What defines leadership?

Yuhong’s new blog talks about leadership. She quite accurately points out that in research, as in all creative work, leadership is a very important quality. I’ve struggled myself with the concept while I was filling out funding applications (yes, I’m still working on funding). People ask you to prove you are a leader… but what does it mean to be a leader?

Yuhong proposes the following definition:

  • Always take into account everyone’s interest
  • Be generous
  • Have a vision

I like Yuhong’s definition!

Is Montréal a creative city?

This morning, I went out and decided to do some research on the city where I live from a creative class point of view. I found two reports. One by Richard Florida himself on Canadian cities. The report was paid for by Ontario, but it looks objective. Second of all, I found a report by the department of Canadian Heritage on attracting talent in Canada.

What comes out of these reports is that Montréal is not a very creative city. It more creative than the Canadian average, but well below Vancouver and Toronto. However, it is definitively a tech. center, it actually surpass both Toronto and Vancouver in terms of being a technopolis. Florida’s report point out though that these figures might be misleading: a lot of tech. workers in Montréal work in the aerospace industry and their job might be in a tech. industry, but it is unclear how much technology is involved in their work. There are creative and talented people in Montréal, but according to the Heritage Canada report, they are poor if not starving.

I must say that these reports match my intuition. I’ve been back from the maritimes for a few months now, and while Montréal is well ahead of the maritimes in terms of food for example (and yes, it does contribute to the creativity index), I’m a bit disappointed. A lot of people in Montréal don’t get it. It is all about big corporations, big unions, big salaries for them. Hey! I want a big salary too! Don’t get me wrong… But the open culture isn’t there.

I would describe the culture here as a “république des satisfaits” (well-off republic): that is, you have a large segment of the population, the baby-boomers, who are squarely in control of the society. They occupy all strategic jobs and resist changes. They have good paying jobs and don’t really care for creativity or openess. I should point out that Montréal is one of the most unionized city in North America. And they make sure younger folks stay out. I suspect they also keep foreigners out. This is somewhat an easier thing to achieve here than in the rest of North America where people are slightly more mobile. I suppose that it is also culturally influenced by France which has a strong sense of hierarchy. Whatever, it sucks and Montréal pays for it: my intuition is that more great jobs are created in Vancouver and Toronto than here.

However, I don’t think this applies as well to the anglophone community in Montréal. I suspect, I hope, they stand closer to Toronto and Vancouver in terms of their creativity index. That’d be an interesting study to make. Are Montréal anglos more open? Wow. You could start quite a debate there.

Let complexity be thy guide

Stephen wrote an article: Whither the Semantic Web. We agree so much that you’d think I steal my good ideas from him (I do).

Semantic Web researchers need to realize that the Semantic Web is happening now. But it isn’t happening where they think. My blog, my entire web site, is described using simple, accessible XML in a RSS format and useful software access it now. Millions of people do the same, either because they are technically capable or by using existing some of the great software out there, much of it free.

On the other hand, the W3C is in a sea of insanity with specifications adopted merely for their political merits, certainly not because they’ve proven themselves to be useful. Don’t get me wrong: some of XPath and XSLT is truly useful. DTDs are useful. But then, things like OWL? Please! I’ve seen no demonstration that such sophisticated specs are actually usable in the real world. Yes, people are lazy and stupid: take it into account when designing new technology.

I think that a lot of this insanity is motivated by researcher’s need for difficult and complex problems to justify their existence. After all, if Joe in his tavern can understand your problem and your solution, it can’t be very serious research.

Let complexity be thy guide.

The Effects of Loss and Latency on User Performance in Unreal Tournament 2003

The following page points to some research on the impact of latency on gamers and, in particular, on recent research involving Unreal Tournament:The Effects of Loss and Latency on User Performance in Unreal Tournament 2003.

I think this is an absolutely great way to attract students: do research on gaming technology. In fact, I once proposed to NRC that I could do some research on Web porn technology, but my boss (Bruce Spencer) seemed reluctant for some reason to invest government dollars in the porn industry.

I still haven’t given up on using porn technology as a research topic though. However, I think that just like gaming, you’d need to work extra-hard just to justify your research topic.

Which is not to say that my research is not on cool topics. I think that inDiscover is quite cool. I also have other things coming that may appear as sexy to some people (but no porn research as of yet).

Just like art, I think that research should be thought provoking.

Got any non-reusable Learning Object?

Here’s an interesting post by viral-learning about Learning Object reuse. One of the defining factor for Learning Objects ought to be reusability, you’d think. However, Downes once correctly pointed out to me that reusability is not really a defining factor… indeed, can you point out to a non-reusable learning object?

It remains an interesting topic. One of the pretensions of object-oriented programming is object reuse. You see it in textbooks. Supposedly, people would continuously reuse code because code is embedded in objets. In practice, it is a claim I haven’t seen come true. It hasn’t proven to be a powerful paradigm in my experience. Objects are useful modeling tool, but they are no magical bullet and they don’t clearly make reuse easier. Not in my experience.

What works? APIs. Coherence sets of function calls you can use in many of your projects.

What would be the equivalent in the Learning Object setting? The closest thing I could think of is a textbook. Are textbooks dead? I don’t think… they may simply no longer be printed in the near future…

OpenTextBook

Here’s a cool project: OpenTextBook. When I was at Acadia, we often wondered why students had to pay CAN$80 for a Calculus textbook when it was obvious that all such textbooks are the same, they have to be, and all of the content has been known for quite some time.

What are we paying publisher for, exactly? We could never quite figure out, but because, neither the university nor the professor ends up paying the bill, we keep asking students to buy expensive textbooks for no good reason.

To be fair, professors are not evil. Not all of them. Many wondered whether we could write a free calculus textbooks ourselves. I think there are some free textbooks but who would dare trusting them? I would trust a textbook that the community can peer review though. If people find mistakes, they can come in and correct the mistakes. It would not converge into a free, perfect textbooks, but it might end up producing an acceptable textbook, for sure.

I co-wrote this really cool document on Series. It is free! You can have the LaTeX source if you ask or are clever enough to navigate my hidden Web.

One day soon, I’ll co-wrote an open textbook. I should make a note of it.

Sun’s employee can blog without asking permission

I like Tim Bray. He gave us so many great things and I’m sure he will help Sun. I’ve learned through OLDaily that Sun’s employees can now blog without asking permission. This is quite clear: if you want to comment on today’s technology or on your daily work, go right ahead. You don’t need to ask your boss first as to whether you can say that or this. I would imagine that company secrets have to remain off the blogs, but such “secrets” are usually quite boring anyway and not what employees would want to write about, and a large company like Sun cannot hold secrets very well anyhow.

To be fair, many Microsoft employees have done this too, and with support from Microsoft. Again, these companies encourage open communication and thus, creativity. They cannot lose.