Inaugural Post

If I am going to join the bloggosphere, I guess that an inaugural post is in order, in which I offer certain explanations, make certain confessions, enumerate goals and make a polite gesture toward the specter of propriety (and I do think that this is a deeply improprietious endeavor). Why blogging? What am I trying to accomplish? Why should anyone care what I think? Why join this societal wave of exhibitionism?

Before I get on to the explaining, allow me to make a theoretical discussion.

In the future, content filtering will be done less by authorities such as editors and more by personally determined trust networks. I frequently fantasize about the future universal digital library. The problem (or advantage) of such a scheme is that although content providers may continue to produce on a regular, periodic schedule, content would be disaggregated from its brand name. For instance, right now I read from many different “containers”: The New York Times, The New Republic et cetera. I know what containers to draw from because I know the network of associations built around the brand names. I know which publications are reputable and I know the editorial positions associated with each publication. The brand name under which articles are currently agglomerated serves as a network of information and authority, a guarantee of quality, an indicator of various literary characteristics (for a discussion of the information content that brand names provide, see The Case for Brands and Special Report: Brands in The Economist, 6 September 2001 [subscription required]. The cover of the issue provocatively mocked the cover of Naomi Klein’s leftist hit No Logo).

In the future I might get my news via an aggregator function that pulls all the articles that I want based on subject or keyword searches, and since they all came from one “container” — the universal digital library — I might read my news without noticing which producer deposited them in the library. But I don’t want to waste time on anti-establishment diatribes, right wing conspiracies or low quality writing and investigating. I won’t want The Bremerton Sun’s take on the latest wave of attacks in Iraq; I want The New York Times’s.

Another problem is that I don’t want to read just the articles that I think I want to read: I will want to read some articles that I do not yet know that I want to read. A system needs both agglomerating and variegating functions. That is to say, systems need both to bring together many things of like kind, but then need to introduce a measure of randomness. Currently, when I bring up The New York Times web page, an editor has selected a variety of stories to present to their readers. I zoom in on the international affairs and national political stories, but also notice other stories and occasionally see something that I wouldn’t have thought to read had not the editor of The New York Times presented it to me. But I couldn’t define my searches in the universal library and then have a ten percent random function: I don’t want absolute randomness. I don’t want to read any articles on transplanting hydrangeas or comparing automobile performance. But specifying what you don’t want is exceedingly difficult.

In such a future, consumers will come to rely on a network of trusted fellow consumers, rather than professional editors to select and vouch for the legitimacy of content and content providers. This is a future that is already rapidly arriving and I can think of a couple of ways that the Internet already achieves this.

One way that this is accomplished is the oldest Internet feature, e-mail. At this point nearly every web site has an “e-mail this to a friend” function that includes an “add your comments” box. People are constantly e-mailing articles to friends they think might be interested and affixing a few comments. People know what their friends are interested in and e-mail accordingly, but people also come across a lot of novel stuff and e-mail that too, hence agglomerating and variegating.

Another example is Amazon.com which allows its users to post reading lists and reviews. When one user identifies another whose reviews are useful or whose reading list contains works similar in interest, the first user can mark the second as a “trusted” user and Amazon will use the second’s habits as a basis for recommendations to the first. Amazon is packing this trick all over the site. When one looks at a book, there is usually a “Customers who bought this book also bought…” heading that lists a few books based on the theory that if two people like one book and one of them also likes another, then the first may like that other book as well.

A third example brings us to the issue of blogging. Blog readers are largely anonymous companions that have trusted the blog writer to direct them to information that the two find mutually interesting. Most blogs are focused on a few, well advertised subjects, so one may choose blogs based on one’s interest, but most bloggers also serve the variegating function in that nearly all make occasional posts of things that vary from the main topic areas.

In a sort of synthesis, I both read J. Bradford DeLong’s blog on a daily basis and have marked him as a “trusted” user at Amazon.com. Think of this as query by ostension, which is a very complex form of specification that contains little abstraction or theory and one which captures the correct element of randomness that one would like.

With that theoretical component in place I now offer up the following list of reasons / explanations:

  1. Systematization. The Internet is about amateurs offering services, often of little earnestness, to a dispersed, frequently anonymous, network of consumers. Two magazines, Foreign Policy and The Wilson Quarterly, have, in addition to standard book reviews, summaries of recent, noteworthy articles and essays from a breadth of sources that their readers might not get to on their regular reading circuit or may not have heard of, not being a part of a particular intellectual community. I find this highly useful and would like to offer the same in a more regular and accessible way. I have my fingers in a lot of pies (see What I read and Why) so I have a lot to offer here. I am constantly trying to skim off the cream of what I read and direct it to the attention of my friends. As I insist the articles upon my friends, I frequently find myself mapping articles into the various debates in which they belong, pointing out the significance of the authors, connecting an article up with a few of its kind to give a good overview of a subject or debate or tracing the genealogy of ideas that lead up to an article’s publication. A blog should allow me to systematize this behavior.
  2. Unobtrusiveness. I engage in my fair share of the e-mailing of articles as I discussed above and sometimes have a lot to say in that little “add your comments” box. In fact, sometimes the session has timed-out on me by the time I click the send button. I am also constantly juggling a list of people to whom I send articles and remarks. “I am undoubtedly going to mention this point to so-and-so: she should get it too.” “Am I being too mean or smug if I send this to my parents?” “These people are casually interested; should I throw them in on a whim?” This push system has the short fallings of being both too intrusive and too hit-and-miss. Do people really want my opinion cluttering up their inbox on my schedule? But what if I miss someone? So I am switching to a pull system.
  3. Trial by Fire. I have always been a part of what I consider a vibrant pseudo-intellectual community, constantly engaged in heated discussion of all manner of issues. As I have grown older, that group has become more dispersed and the arguments more tempered. Further, I worry that I am growing more complacent and ossified in my thinking. I am just a little too self-satisfied. An outstanding characteristic of my previous circle was the highly contentious disagreements among us. I am looking for more challenges and a more rarified atmosphere. Since I have become an exclusively urban liberal, discussion consists of nothing more than congratulating one another on our equally enlightened opinions. The self-congratulation is becoming a little tiresome and I am hoping to find a few conservatives to lay into me. I am soliciting contention, for I love the dictum,
  4. 12Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;13Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. (1 Corinthians 3: 12 & 13)

    Or perhaps better, Nietzsche:

    If one wants to have a friend one must also want to wage war for him: and to wage war, one must be capable of being an enemy. In a friend one should still honor the enemy…In a friend one should have one’s best enemy. You should be closest to him with your heart when you resist him. (On the Friend, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Walter Kaufman)

  5. Reading Discipline. I am hoping that this blog will bring a greater measure of discipline to my reading regiment. I frequently make my weekly magazine run, identify the most critical articles of the week and then proceed to meander through the pile, reading the more easily digested pieces in rapid sequence and never getting to the most important ones. Next thing I know, I have the next week’s magazines piled on top of those oh so important articles from last week. I don’t read with a plan. Further, I tend to neglect articles that seem to be the latest information on a story whose broad outlines are already well reported. I am hoping that the imperatives of writing make me more dogged about sticking with a story all the way to the end.
  6. Writing Mastry. I am interested in improving my writing ability — especially the speed at which I write — and in building up a cache of material to allow me to more quickly write longer pieces. For myself, I consider this blog a “half baked thought” database.Further, one frequently has not achieved mastery of a subject until one has put their knowledge of the subject into practice. For the intellectual pursuits, the practice is writing.
  7. Documentation. As I believe Andrew Sullivan is fond of pointing out, the Internet has a long collective memory. I would like to record the things that I thought while events were unfolding to see how they fare in light of the backward glance. For instance, I can recall saying in a particular argument during the lead up to the second Iraq war that I was sure that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that he was concealing from United Nations inspectors. I had read Scott Ritter and Richard Butler’s books and I confidently asserted that when the regime had been toppled, we would find all sorts of nasties beyond the most wild imaginings of Hans Blix. However, I also recall waking up early or not going out to run errands so that I could watch Blix and ElBaradei update the U.N. Security Council on the state of inspections and very clearly remember taking note of ElBaradei’s careful and surprisingly thorough debunking of the Bush administration’s case against Iraq. I remember watching Colin Powell’s presentation and thinking it somewhat less than conclusive. In fact, I thought it rather circumstantial. What I don’t remember is exactly how nuanced was my assessment of this conflicting information. Right now, I am predicting that John Kerry is a stinker, that I will not succumb to party loyalty and ever get enthusiastic about him and that he will talk his way into losing in November. This may change (see smarties epigram) and if it does, I want a record of my original thinking on the issue as well as an account of its subsequent evolution. On the other hand, the status field in the database underlying this blog allows a value of suppressed, so maybe I won’t own up to everything.
  8. Parents. Despite some problems covered in this rather amusing piece from The Onion (“Mom Finds Out About Blog.” 12 November 2004), I currently live all the way across the country from my parents and this will allow them a measure of unprompted news on me.
  9. Physics of Information. Among the issues in which I am interested is what I might term the physics of information, or perhaps general systems theory as applied to information. I don’t want to bamboozle anyone with fancy words: I don’t know much about the subject and probably never will. However, I am very interested in visualization, strange attractors, post hoc or atheoretic analysis, object oriented design, statistical control, organization of narrative information, metadata and other issues. A blog will give me opportunities (and inflict upon me the necessities) to explore these concepts and techniques.
  10. Technology and Society. I am very interested in issues of technology and society: surveillance, voyeurism, privacy and exhibitionism; accelerated productivity growth, corporate restructuring and globalization in the economy; the leveling of hierarchies in a more networked society; non-constructive uses of technology; open-source and the extension of the do-it-yourself movement. One can comment on these issues without knowing much about the underlying technologies, but to really understand the logic driving these changes and, hence, to engage in some measure of anticipation, a detailed understanding at the level of implementation is very important.
  11. The Hacker Ethic. For those who want to put out the effort, the Internet is very much a part of the do-it-yourself movement. I, like many, am deeply concerned about us low-rent occupants being driven out by the upscale, corporate types and the Internet turning into a one-way those in powerful to pliant masses communications medium. As long as one is a mere consumer, one will have little interest in the issues faced by small produces. Smartiesis my Internet squat.There is also a deeply elitist strain to computer subculture — witness Saturday Night Live’sdead-on recurrent skit, “Your Companies Computer Guy.” I am way too fond of telling people that my first Internet access was a dial-up shell account on a Unix machine in 1993 and that I first installed Linux on my computer when it was, I think, kernel version 0.92.I frequently reread the essay Real Programmers Don’t Use PASCAL (Post, Ed. Datamation. volume 29, number 7. July 1983. pp. 263-265.) and love it. Times have changed. The first language that I learned was Pascal (though I have toggled a program into a computer using a front panel) and I currently work in PHP and Perl which are both hardly down on the bare metal. In fact, if I had to go back to a strongly typed language like C (yes, I know C is a debatable example, but it’s strong compared to PHP), I might go crazy and write a bunch of libraries to make it work like PHP. But I do prefer to be “close to the machine.” I am still sitting here at a terminal window on a Unix machine. I do all my work for smarties using Joe, about as vanilla of a text editor as one can find. Knowing “how to beat the machine every time” makes for an entirely different relationship to technology, even if sometimes I just have to use more drastic means. Smarties is my project on which I might hack.
  12. Fun. Ideology and ambition are all fine and good, but computers are just plain fun. In the past I have been rather deeply involved in computers, whether as a computer science student or as a PC tech. Lately, I haven’t had any official reason to keep my skills sharp, so I need a computer-related avocation. For some time now, I have been wanting to explore databases and information interfaces. Smarties allows me to fuse my interest in computer technology with my interest in politics.

And now a little housekeeping.

  1. Technologies for the Future. As I said in reason number eleven, I am doing this partly as an excuse to play with computers. I wrote from scratch all the databases and the code that make smartiesgo. In my rush there is a lot of spaghetti code and some of features don’t work yet (e.g. the search button above). I am going to try to go back and make the code more elegant so that (1) I can figure out what is going on if I revisit something after a long period of neglect and (2) because my interest in design issues from reason number eight. Much of smarties is functional programming and I would like for more of it to be objects so that the implementation is separated from the interface, allowing advancements in functionality to be more easily incorporated.Even now smarties spans multiple databases. I intend to add more (counter-intelligence and news archive; today in historyneeds to be fully incorporated). Database interoperability and architectures to span data sources will be big research issues for me in the near future.One of my first goals will be to make separate development and production environments. Until then, I may break a few functions trying to improve them. Don’t be surprised if smarties doesn’t load or gives garbage on occasion. I’m working on it.
  2. Interface Design. The interface is very inconsistent right now. It appears that functional groupings are listed horizontally in the green menu bar and that topic filters run down the left-hand grey menu. If only there were some nice rule. Soap Box is the blog, but only the intellectual aspect of it (politics, history, economics, philosophy and culture). Personal is posts about my goings-on. News and about smarties are (will be) static pages. When in Soap Box, left column options act as topic filters, but when in other function areas the filters act like links back into Soap Box. All very confusing. I need to bring some regularity to this mess.Also, I want the left-hand menu bar to do more. I want it to become more of an active navigation aide and to display information indicating the viewer’s position in the site map. Right now it is mostly empty screen space.
  3. Post Rate. A fair number of bloggers as of late have quit owing to burn-out. Even the mighty Andrew Sullivan recently said, “I’m unsure of how long I can keep this up.” I don’t want to post at such a high rate that I drive myself mad, but I do want to post frequently enough that people don’t forget about my page. I’m thinking about twice a week right now. These days I am almost exclusively interested in politics, but one of my longest standing interests is in economics, though, and I want to try to make a post on a periodic basis assessing the state and prospects of the national and international economy.
  4. The Third Person. I will frequently speak of myself in the third person. I know it is a little creepy, but it is also part of the tradition. Many bloggers do it. Joshua Marshall frequently says “Here at Talking Points Memo we’ve repeatedly noted…” Robert Caro never uses “I”, but always “the author of this book.” A whole episode of Seinfeld is devoted to George Costanza’s habit of referring to himself in the third person. “George is getting very angry.”
  5. Acknowledgements. Smarties isn’t created in splendid isolation. I discuss extensively with a select group of people and many of my ideas and rhetoric are borrowed when one of you plants an excellent idea in my head or expresses something better than I can. Thinking is alternately a solitary and a community activity. In order to avoid starting every post, “I was talking to so-and-so the other day…” and out of a policy of confidentiality — I have elected to make myself public, I am not going to drag everyone I know with me — I am going to largely avoid mentioning other people’s names. Certain of you will end up contributing almost as much to this site as will I. For that I am very grateful and the fact that I don’t mention you on each occasion is out of respect, not indifference.

As a final note, I suppose that an explanation of the site name is also required. Do I really feel sufficiently self-assured to promulgate my writings under the title smarties? Actually, the name was bestowed upon me by another: a frequent recipient of my editorial e-mails took to calling the recipient list — rather sardonically — “your smarties.” When I set up an e-mail group for my recipients, I named it “smarties” for lack of anything else. When brainstorming a name for the web site, I flippantly chose this barb for its self-deprecating value and as a tilt of the hat to the genesis of the site.

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