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Archive for May, 2007

Technorati, tags and topics

(Disclosure: I’m on Technorati’s board of advisors. I saw an advance version of the changes, but otherwise had no direct influence. Also, although at some point I conceivably could make some indeterminate amount of money from Technorati, the fact that Dave Sifry is a friend influences my judgment more.)

Technorati has just done a major re-shaping of itself, which is interesting as a response to the increasing need for both pinpoint accuracy and broad context. Dave Sifry, the ceo, blogs about it here.

Technorati is driving down both roads simultaneously, which I think makes sense. On the one hand, if you want to do an old fashioned text search through blogs, the site has improved its engine and pared down the experience. If, on the other hand, you want to see information in context (and on the Web that of course means being able to explore that context further), the site has taken several steps:

1. The default search now is for tags, not for text in blogs. Tags are expressions of what the readers think a post is about, so some types of searches should return more accurate, relevant and interesting results. Of course, we also use tags in idiosyncratic ways, so only experience will tell whether and when tag searching is more satisfying than text searching. In any case, Technorati lets you click to search through text, if that’s what you want. (You can go straight to the text search page via

2. Technorati continues to include more sources and more types of information. In fact, the home page no longer positions Technorati as a blog search engine. “Include everything” is one of the key recommendations of Everything is Miscellaneous, so I like its continuing inclusiveness :)

3. These changes seem to move Technorati towards embracing topics as a basic unit of meaning. For example, if you search for “ron paul,” you are taken to a page that assembles blog posts, videos and photos about the controversial Republican. There are tabs for music and events as well, although in this case Technorati didn’t find any. There’s also a “WTF” post, an explanation of the topic generated and voted on by users. (It’s displaying the WTF by siegheilneocon, which only got 27 votes, instead of the one by beckychr007, which got 61 votes, seeming to prefer the most recent to the most popular, which is either a bug or I’m not understanding it.)

Topics are an important way to cluster ideas. At the moment, Technorati has no concept of a topic apart from a tag, however. The infrastructure to do more is in place, because the site already displays a list of related tags. The results pages don’t bring in the content from those tags, though. For example, if “john mccain” were a related tag, it might make sense to bring some of that tagged material into the “ron paul” topic page. That would give us a broader view of the topic. Conflating topics with tags can increase the precision of results — but not for highly ambiguous tags such as “shot” — but can also reduce the context and thus our understanding. Granted, figuring out algorithmically what’s relevant and how it’s relevant is no small challenge. (Maybe if some topic pages were marked as especially worthwhile and stable, not all of the clean up and construction would have to be done algorithmically.)

Likewise, at some point it’d be good to start relating topics, so that the system knows that “ron paul” is (in some sense) contained by “republicans” and republicans are related to “politics.” This sort of information can eventually be gleaned folksonomically from the tags. Of course there’d be nothing wrong with using existing taxonomies and ontologies to help further refine the relationships among topics. It’s always going to be a messy, overlapping, shifting mass of connections, but, well, so are we.

This is not a criticism of what Technorati has done. In fact, I mean it as a way of expressing my excitement about where it goes from here.

The “Miscellaneous” Podcast: Neil DeGrasse Tyson

In the 4th in the Harvard-Wired “Miscellaneous” podcast series I get to interview Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist and author of Death by Black Hole. We talk about our culture’s insistence on thinking there is one preferred way of ordering the cosmos. [Tags: ]

Laser Theory and Peer to Peer

Vasilis Kostakis is working on his thesis, “Laser Theory and Peer to Peer: Redefinition of the Society in the Information Age,” in public at a blog. Lots of big ideas there.

Nick Carr thinks it’s wrong, at least up to page 9.

Nick Carr writes a long disagreement with the book, based on my statement that the track is the “natural unit” of music. (Nick does not comment on anything beyond that sentence on page 9.)

Nick is correct. Tracks are clearly not “natural.” The book overall is an argument against there being a natural units and a natural organization of them. I meant the “natural” to be lightly ironic in this case. And he is of course also right that there is value in how albums arrange tracks so that the whole is more than the parts. [Added a few hours later:] But, in the third order of order, we can get not only the Beatles’ way of arranging their White Album, we can also get George Martin’s remix, how Ringo wanted it played , the revelatory way some unknown kid in Akron mixes it up with the Beach Boys, and the original order minus that one song we can’t stand (AKA “Revolution #9”). The miscellaneous isn’t about there being no order. It is about the potential for many, many orders.

So, I don’t agree with the characterization of the argument of the book he derives from this one phrase. I’m disappointed that Nick found this sentence to be a “stopper.”

Ring species

Here’s one way biological species can be messy. In a ring species, adjacent populations can interbreed, but not all can interbreed with all. In fact, as you walk around the ring, each population can interbreed, until you come back to the beginning where the last species can’t breed with the first. (Thanks to Udi Oron for the pointer.)

Low-tech social knowledge

Since we’re all getting tired of hearing Wikipedia used as an example of this or that — although I’m sure you’ll find the discussion of Wikipedia in Everything Is Miscellaneous to be minty fresh! — here’s a reminder that before the estimable Wikipedia, we were making knowledge social using humbler forms.

Knowledge has always been social, even though our metaphysics has led us to say that knowledge is a type of belief, and thus is a mental state, and thus is something inside a head. If the belief is true and justified, then the mental state gets stamped with a big, official K, preferably in some gothic-teutonic font. If not, it gets marked with a red X and your soul loses 2 points (4 if it is an essay question). Something like that.

When Wikipedia works, however, (and I think it works remarkably well remarkably often), the knowledge it contains results from a social process. Expert opinion gets rendered expert-er and more neutral by being negotiated in public.

But forget Wikipedia for the moment. Think about the mailing lists you’ve been on for years. Some of them are just for fun, but others are our best source of information, knowledge and opinion about topics that matter to us. Over time, experts emerge on the list. Their posts are listened to, but also usefully challenged and extended. The mailing list as a whole is a better source than any of the individuals on it. Mailing lists embody social knowledge — knowledge that arises through conversation and that thus is not contained in any single head. Social knowledge is among, not in.

And not just at Wikipedia.

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My talk at Google

Google has posted the video of my talk there.

The weirdness of page 99

The odd Page 99 site asks authors to post about what’s on page 99 of their  book. I have done so.

The weird thing is that the very same day I wrote the post, Shelley’s review of my book appeared, taking me to task for what I say on – wait for it -page 99.

Maybe things aren’t as miscellaneous as they seem. (Alternative explanation: We are not wired with a good sense of probability, so coincidences strike us as meaningful.)

Arianna Huffington podcast interview is up

Misc. Podcast interview: Arianna Huffington

The latest in my series of Everything Is Miscellaneous interviews, sponsored by the Harvard Berkman Center and Wired, has been posted. I talk with Arianna Huffington about whether the Huffington Post is what the news is going to look like as reporting itself enters the swirl of the miscellaneous. (Along the way I learn not to use the word “revenge” even in a light way with Ms. Huffington.) (Disclosure: I sometimes write for HuffingtonPost; I don’t get paid for it.) [Tags: ]

Rob Paterson likes the book

Rob Paterson has a terrific review and consideration, focusing on the book’s themes of power and meaning…which are indeed at the heart of the book. (Also, he writes, “I tried to put it down but had to get up and read it until I had finished,” which makes me inordinately happy.)

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