August 31, 2005

Libertarian Disasters (bottom up)

Jared Diamond has been asking a question for years. What where the Easter Islanders thinking when they cut down their last tree? If New Orleans is any guide then answer was that they were too busy looting to notice much.

Managers at a nursing home were prepared to cope with the power outages and had enough food for days, but then the looting began. The Covenant Home's bus driver surrendered the vehicle to carjackers after being threatened.

Bands of people drove by the nursing home, shouting to residents, ''Get out!'' On Wednesday, 80 residents, most of them in wheelchairs, were being evacuated to other nursing homes in the state.

''We had enough food for 10 days,'' said Peggy Hoffman, the home's executive director. ''Now we'll have to equip our department heads with guns and teach them how to shoot.''

That's the saddest reminder of how low humanity can sink when things go bad, although Diamond pointing out how the Easter Islander's diet increasing consisted of humans as their society fell just might beat it. It leaves me wondering what the libertarian response to this disaster might be. That the government is actually impeding the repairs, the market would have fixed the levee faster? That looting is better called the "competitive redistribution of goods", and is actually a good thing? Or that if every nursing home aid carried a gun things would have turned out different?

I've been addressing these issues in some very different contexts in the various "bottom up" posts. Well New Orleans is at the bottom, in more ways then one right now, and it will be interesting to see what happens. And these early reports sound more like warfare in the Congo then the sort of beautiful emergence that free marketers and high tech libertarians love to fantasize about. None of this comes much of a surprise to me as I've long been arguing that emergent systems don't just emerge out of the ether. When they do occur they occur in very particular environments.

Markets (and no market is ever really "free") work in civil societies. They tend to fall apart in the face of guns, to the point of non existence in again the Congo, or to the point of deep corruption as in the mafia markets of Russia. Out of all the animals in the world only a few display the sort of emergent intelligence of ants or termites. Occasionally such as in elephant stampedes, humans rioting or perhaps the mythical lemming mass suicides some animals display behavior that's a bit more like emergent stupidity. The point being that emergence is not nearly the simple thing that some would make it out to be. Books on the subject naturally focus on the occasions where it works, but in the process they give a distorted idea of how often they don't work. Which in term leads to fans of the concept having completely unreasonable ideas of how to go about getting that magical self organization to happen.

Self organizing and self regulating systems are fantastic creature, but they take real effort to make happen. The environment needs to be right. For a market that means a stable trusting society with a surplus of goods and a standard of equable exchange. For a community to self organize to prevent looting I suspect you need a sort of cohesiveness, social equality and absence of poverty that just doesn't exist in New Orleans, a city rife with centuries of unresolved social tension. Rather then chaos theory down in Louisiana, instead we get a bit more traditional style of chaos, and no its not nearly as pretty as say a Julia set.

update: I wish I never wondered what the libertarian response to the hurricane was, cause it just made me a bit iller. Over at Reason, probably the premier libertarian blog, the only hurricane post out of nearly 50 in the past 3 days is entitled "Hurricane Bullshit". And its a rant against global warming and the Kyoto accord. Main source? That most reliable of them all, the guy who wrote the book predicting the Dow Jones average would hit 36,000 in 3-5 years. He wrote it oh about 6 years ago...

Posted by Abe at 09:01 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Oil Down

Katrina Threatens $25 Billion of Damage; Oil Near $70 - Bloomberg

U.S. Decision to Release Oil Sends Prices Below $70 - New York Times

You know its sort of funny, I can't even remember oil passing $70, yet Google News is rammed with stories on how its dipping below...

Winston was smoking a Victory Cigarette which he held carefully horizontal. The new ration did not start till tomorrow and he had only four cigarettes left. For the moment he had shut his ears to the remoter noises and was listening to the stuff that streamed out of the telescreen. It appeared that there had even been demonstrations to thank Big Brother for raising the chocolate ration to twenty grammes a week. And only yesterday, he reflected, it had been announced that the ration was to be reduced to twenty grammes a week. Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours?
- 1984

Ok, its clearly not that bad yet, but there does seem to be some cognitive dissonance at work here, no? This oil stuff keeps shooting up and up, one small disaster after another. I've never had held the catastrophic faith in the end of oil that some of the "peak oil" proponents have, but what was oil at a year or so ago? Under $30 I think, and while I'm having a hard time finding a good graph (ie one that I can understand) of crude prices, I'm pretty sure NYMEX's site confirms that. Has the levee broken? Or is this just a blip..

All the signs of a clusterfuck are in order. Lots of crying wolf, decades of it. People stop believing the warnings, maybe they understand the warnings, but they don't feel the fear. The prices creep up slowly, punctuated by a series of "one of a kind" events. It's not constant, there are little dips in price, dips of false hopes. Economists try and argue it away with their favorite refrain: "somebody else will take care of it"*. Maybe its just the onset of fall but I'm starting to feel like we are watching an explosion in slow motion.

Now betting that the world is going to end has been a losing proposition, for a few millennium at least. Alternative energy will improve for sure, but will it improve enough? Me personally, I really want to believe Thomas Gold's deep oil thesis, what could be more darkly comedic then a world of nearly unlimited oil? I'm not counting on it though, the world might not end, but that doesn't mean the economy is going to be good does it? Expensive transportation and expensive electricity stab right to the heart of our expensive culture and I'm not too excited to see that go down.

* just to be clear, that is not a direct quote from the site linked in the same sentence, but it is a pretty accurate summation of the faith.

Posted by Abe at 11:01 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 30, 2005

Hurricane / Watch a Flick, Illin and Root for the Villian

It's not much of a secret, but no one talks about it anyway. But when disaster looms, who can help but to root for it to be a big one. After the fact it iss a tragedy of course. And the Mississippi delta is looking worse and worse with each refresh of the news. But during the build up...

With all the media hype of course it was a bit of a let down when Hurricane Katrina veered a touch to the east. "What you mean New Orleans isn't sinking into the sea after all? Damn, was looking forward to a good news cycle..." Not that I would actually want New Orleans to go, its a great town but I wouldn't want it to go even if sucked, and my heart goes out to all those who have suffered and lost in the hurricane. But when it comes to news based entertainment, once again they can't quite deliver on the hype. Horror just rarely looks the same in reality as it does in the movies.

If you think I'm bad (and what about you?), sci-fi author turned ecological disaster guru Bruce Sterling was almost ecstatic over the prospects. "In the meantime, however, humanity's incapacity to recognize and deal with its own peril is becoming eerie. And hilarious." I'm starting to get the feeling he'd rather watch the world burn then save it, but then again isn't that what most of us are doing daily anyway?

"Here comes America's worst storm ever, yet nobody on this plethora of satellites whispers the obvious: 'climate change.'?" Stirling has been beating this drum for a while now, and it almost feels like his frustration is sliding into some super-villain state, he's been turning himself into a cartoon caricature for a while now too. And well I hope he's actually wrong in his ecoparanoia, which unfortunately for him would put him close to the looney bin. But if he's right, and yes he may well be right, well I hope the world wakes up before he completely gives up hope...

Personally those rising oil prices just hit me for the first time. I've known the math and theory for a while of course. But I ride a bike. Live in New York City. Heck I don't even have a drivers license. When those prices go up I'm in the background cheering them on. But thinking and feeling are two different animals and a cold shiver just went through me, for the first time my mind felt that oil impact. Suddenly all those things I knew about just started to feel real. I wondered about heating costs in the winter, inflation, the costs of shipping my food and foreign bike parts. my plastic consumption. I might not need to mainline the oil, fill it straight into my commuting tank every couple day, but I'm just as hooked on the liquid gold as the rest of us. And so are you, no matter who you might be rooting for.

Donate to the Red Cross here..

Posted by Abe at 06:18 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 29, 2005

Tags (bottom up)


- Tags are not organizational innovation they are an interface innovation. The difference between a tag and a category is non existent except that the interface threshold to create a tag is so low that people actually do it regularly.

- How long before someone ads subtags to tags? You know like subcategories, like structured information... You know it might actually be useful.

- According to Clay Shirky tags are semi-structured data, but in reality all structured data is only semi-structured. And semi structured data by definition is of course structured. A distinction between highly structured data and semi structured data is workable, but the borderline between the two is murkier then the Mississippi delta in a hurricane.

- Clay seems intent on framing tags like its a war. But what is he warring against? Its a war on an idea, on an ideal, the vision of a unified and complete structure for data. Why someone would want to wage a war on such retarded and impossible idea is a bit beyond me, but I suppose Clay has spent a bit more time with librarians then is healthy.

- Is Clay's bold statement that "classification schemes are going to be largely displaced by tagging" is really, as he himself puts it, "unreasonable"? More like redundant, note the plural in "schemes". All that statement says is that "classification schemes are going to be largely displaced by more classification schemes".

- Make no mistake about it, every "tagger" is creating their own classification scheme, no matter how sloppy it may be.

- Similarly its a bit funny that main people in this debate seem to be Clay, Peter Merholz and Gene Smith, three of the bigger tag proponents around...

- There is clearly something getting lost in the noise here. Perhaps some clarity can come by looking at it not as an issue of how people add metadata to information, but as how people (and machines) navigate information. There is organized navigation, searching a card catalog for instance, and there is algorithmic navigation, say entering term in Google.

- Online this roughly corresponds with clicking on a link versus typing a term into a search box.

- The "I'm feeling lucky" at Google is about a pure an algorithmic navigation as there is. The standard Google results however use an algorithm to generate structured data, an ordered list of terms.

- Tags are structured data, but by lowering the threshold of creating structured data, that is increasing the shear amount of it, the utility of the structuring decreases. At the same time though the increased structured data increases the usefulness of algorithmic navigation.

- So if tags must be a war (and they don't) then it is the algorithm makers who stand to gain the most and the organizers who stand to lose the most.

- Tags are not a war not because algorithmic and organized navigation can peacefully coexist, but rather because their existences are inexplicably intermeshed together.

- Google is a great example, in some ways it is the triumph of the algorithm, yet it's very existence depends upon high structured data. Without the DNS system Google would be worthless. Without html standards Google would be worthless. Imagine if each web page had its own definition of the anchor tag, Google would be worthless. Or if there was no standard way to declare a language for each page. And lets not even get into the fact that the best results in Google are often pages that are directories or in other ways feature highly structured data.

- In light of this Clay's claim that "search has largely displaced directories for finding things" is a bit silly. The two just can't be separated with any neatness.

- And yeah someone should tell Clay "market populism" and "libertarianism" are the exact same thing, I'd send an email, but I think this piece has probably damaged my grades enough as is...

Posted by Abe at 12:45 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 27, 2005

Web 2.0

Are the internet hypelords getting a bit tired? There's this funny whiff of déjà vu that comes along with the latest and greatest buzzword: Web 2.0. Web 2.0? Wasn't that like 1995? Don't they remember that Business 2.0 magazine? Or remember how all the big companies have stopped using version numbers for software and instead hired professional marketers to make even blander and more confusing names? I hear "Web 2.0" and immediately smell yet another hit off the dotcom crackpipe...

But perhaps that's a little too harsh, while Web 2.0 might have emerged in a large part from tech publisher O'Reilly's PR, underneath it is a real feeling among some that there is something going on that makes the web of today different then the web of a few years ago. Blogs, open standards, long tails and the like. The most concise and clear definition I've found is Richard Manus', " the philosophy of Web 2.0 is to let go of control, share ideas and code, build on what others have built, free your data." Which of course doesn't sound that different then say the goes of the plain old unnumbered "web", back ten years ago. But the Web 2.0 are right, the web is different now, but the big differences aren't necessarily found in those prosaic "information wants to be free" ideals, which actually stand as one of the biggest constants in web evolution.

What really separates the "Web 2.0" from the "web" is the professionalism, the striation between the insiders and the users. When the web first started any motivated individual with an internet connection could join in the building. HTML took an hour or two to learn, and anyone could build. In the Web 2.0 they don't talk about anyone building sites, they talk about anyone publishing content. What's left unsaid is that when doing so they'll probably be using someone else's software. Blogger, TypePad, or if they are bit more technical maybe WordPress or Movable Type. It might be getting easier to publish, but its getting harder and harder to build the publishing tools. What's emerging is a power relationship, the insiders who build the technology and the outsiders who just use it.

The professionalization of the web has been a long and gradated process. The line between amateur and pro didn't exist at the dawn of the web, but over the course of the years, over the course of new technologies, a gap appeared and it continues to widen. There have been web professionals for a decade now, but where as the distinction between a pro and an amateur was once a rather smooth one, it is now a highly striated one. Early html took an afternoon to learn. Simple javascript, early versions of Flash, basic database usage, php, these are things that took a motivated but unexceptional individual a weekend to learn. All it took to transform into a pro was a weekend, a bit of drive and the ability to sell yourself to an employer. This is smooth separation.

Its 2005 now Ajax, the latest and greatest in web tech. If you want to build an Ajax site, you have two real options, be a professional or hire a professional. I'm sure there a few people out there who could teach themselves Ajax in a weekend, but they would have to be exceptional individuals. You can't just view source and reverse engineer Gmail or Reblog. You need to be a professional programmer who understands web standards, databases, CSS and dynamic html... These are apps built not just by pros, but often by teams of pros. The difference between a professional and amateur is no longer smooth, but striated.

The Web 2.0 is a professional web, a web run by insiders. In the larger space of the software industry as a whole these are still young brash upstarts pushing a somewhat radical agenda of openness and sharing. In contrast to the agenda's of old line software companies like Microsoft and Sun, AOL and Oracle, the Web 2.0 actually merits some of its hype. The world of RSS feeds, abundant APIs and open source code really is a major departure from the "own and control" approaches of an earlier generation of companies and something I'm personally in favor of. But just how open are these technologies really? And just how many people do they empower? Take a close look and Web 2.0 looks a bit more like a power grab and a bit less like a popular revolution.

Like the proponents of "free" markets, the pushers of Web 2.0 seem to have a quite an idealistic idea of just what "free" and "open" are, and how systems based around those concepts actually function. Peter Merholz is perhaps the sharpest and most thoughtful of Web 2.0 evangelists and his essay "How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Relinquish Control" just might be the best argument for the Web 2.0 philosophy around. But its also paints a radically misleading picture of what it means to "relinquish control". For relinquishing control doesn't just mean letting go, losing control, it actually means controlling just how you let go.

Netflicks is a great example. Merholz talks about how the company success revolved around giving up on late fees, unlike traditional video stores they did not control how long a customer could keep a video. A smart move for sure, but they didn't just relinquish control, but instead opted to control several other key factors. They gave up control on the length of the rental and instead opted to control how many videos a customer could have at any given time, and take control over the final decision as to what video a customer would get. Netflicks isn't giving up control, they are exchanging it, they built a highly controlled system in which enabled them to allow certain vectors, namely the length of video rentals, to fluctuate freely.

What's customer reviews, which Merholz prominently cites as an example of a company relinquishing control to its customers. And indeed if you write a review there is a good chance your words will show up in Amazon's page for the book. Amazon will cede control of that small section of the page to you. But just how much do they really give up? In submitting a review the reviewer grants " and its affiliates a nonexclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, and fully sub-licensable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, and display such content throughout the world in any media." Even then Amazon requires you to follow their review guidelines and delays the publication for 5 to 7 business days, quite possibly so that they can review the review in some way. Once this is all done the review is then placed on a page that Amazon has complete control over the layout. The reviews go near the bottom, well "below the fold". So just how much control has Amazon given away? And just how much have they gained back in return?

At the technological core of the Web 2.0 ideology is another innovation that Amazon has been a early leader in, public APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces. APIs are tricky concepts to grasp, they are essentially ways in which on computer program can talk to another, or one part of a computer program can talk to another part. Until recently, until Web 2.0, talking about public APIs basically meant talking about computer operating systems. Most APIs where private, things that development teams used to build complex systems of interlocking programs, things like Amazon, Ebay and Google. Amazon and Ebay in particular have quite complex relationships with a certain subset of their customers who happen to run businesses that rely in part or entirely on using Amazon or Ebay services. Amazon has affiliates and zshops, while Ebay its power sellers and eBay stores. I haven't been able to track down a good history of public web APIs, but I suspect Amazon and Ebay released theirs mainly as a service to their power customers, as a way to help these customers make them even more money. Google on the other hand released its public API mainly as a geek toy, not as a revenue source. The sort of action that makes Web 2.0 devotees ecstatic. The public API is a way to share data, allow independent programmers to build their own applications using information collected and sorted by the likes of Google and Amazon, and allows users to access this data in any variety of ways not fully controlled by the data holder. The public face of the public API is that of openness and sharing, of relinquishing control. Look a bit behind that facade though, and once again, we find yet another system of control.

A public API is not what a companies internal developers are using to extend their systems. It doesn't give you full access to the data or full access to the functionality of the system. This is often a good thing, as an Amazon customer I'm quite happy that the Amazon public API does not include access to credit card data or purchasing habits. Despite all the Web 2.0 hype about open data I've never seen anyone argue for companies sharing this info. But the limits on what can be accessed via a public API go far beyond just protecting confidential user information. In fact the company creating the API has absolute control over what goes into it. They maybe giving up a degree of control, but they are controlling exactly what that degree is.

A company that allows you to access their databases and applications via an API is clearly more open than one with no API at all. But the API is also instrumental in establishing an asymmetrical power relationship between the API maker and the user. The user is free to use the API, but the creator has control over just what goes into the API. In addition the use of the API is almost always governed by a license restricting just how free a user can be with an API. Google's API for instance restricts the number of "automated queries" to 1000 a day. This essentially means that it can be used to prototype an application, but not to create any sort of commercial use beyond the smallest of scales. But just in case the license also clearly prohibits any commercial use at all. Is this a way to free the data or a way to implement another level of control over it?

Any user of a public API runs the risk of entering a rather catch-22 position. The more useful the API is, the more dependent the user becomes on the APIs creator. In the case of Ebay sellers or Amazon affiliates this is often a mutually beneficial relationship, but also inherently unbalanced. The API user holds a position somewhat akin to a minor league baseball team or McDonald's franchisee, they are given the tools to run a successful operation, but are always beholden to the decisions of the parent organization. You can make a lot of money in one of those businesses, but you can't change the formula of the "beef" and you always run the risk of having your best prospects snatched away from you.

There is another asymmetrical relationship at work in the public API system, an asymmetry of data. The public API rarely, if ever, gives full access to the data and the way an internal API can. Even the most open of public APIs will not give access to stored credit card numbers and passwords, at least not intentionally. Often though the gap between the two systems is far greater. Google's public API for instance allows you to do searches and dictionary lookups, but doesn't give access any of the data mining functions at work in Google's internal system. You can't use the API to find out what terms are searched for more, what sort of searches are originating from a particular address, or what one particular user (based on Google's infamous 30 year cookie) has searched for over the past year. That sort of datamining is reserved for Google employees and their associates. And not only is the API user denied access to much of this information, they also are gifting Google with even more data from which it can extract data. With every public API call the creator gives out information it already possesses, while gaining a new piece of information back, information on what people are interested in.

At the core of the API is a system of control, the API creator has a nearly limitless ability to regulate what can go in and out of their system. And it is precisely this system of control that allows the API to set certain vectors of information free. In Google's case the ability to obtain ranked search results, definitions and a few other factors. In Amazon's case its book data, images of the cover, author names, titles, prices, etc. Ebay's lets you build your own interface to sell via their marketplace. Flickr's lets you search photos. In no case does the public API give full access to the system. You can't find passwords, credit card info, users addresses, all of which is a good thing. Nor can you find much info on what other API users are doing, or what the people using the standard web interface to these systems are doing. Often the volume of your activity is restricted. Often access requires registration, meaning not only is the use of the API monitored, but its also possible to associate that activity to a particular individual. By design, and perhaps by necessity an API privileges the creator over the user.

Privilege is what the Web 2.0 is really about. What separates the Web 2.0 from that plain old "web" is the establishment and entrenchment of a hierarchy of power and control. This is not the same control that Microsoft, AOL and other closed system / walled garden companies tried unsuccessfully to push upon internet users. Power in the Web 2.0 comes not from controlling the whole system, but in controlling the connections in a larger network of systems. It is the power of those who create not open systems, but semi-open systems, the power of API writers, network builders and standards definers.

More then anything else the paradoxes of Web 2.0 "freedom" then the open standard. Open standards are freely published protocols that people voluntarily agree to comply with. Standards like html (for publishing web pages), css (for controlling the look and layout of webpages), rss (for subscribing to information feeds) and jpeg (for compressing and viewing photolike images). These standards are not nearly as open as their name might imply. Sometimes they are created and run by corporations (Adobe's pdf format), sometimes by nonprofits (the W3C which governs html standards), sometimes like with RSS there are public fights and competing versions. Implementing changes to an open standard at the very least requires considerable political skills, one can easily make their own version of a standard, but unless they can convince others to adopt their version, its not a standard at all. It is only by gaining users that a protocol gains potency, and to do so the standard itself must be politicized, and frequently institutionalized.*

The real hook to the freedoms promised by the Web 2.0 disciples is that it requires nearly religious application of open standards (when of course it doesn't involve using a "public" API). The open standard is the control that enables the relinquishing of control. Data is not meant to circulate freely, its meant to circulate freely via the methods proscribed via an open standard. In order to relinquish control over the data one first must establish firm control over how that data is formatted and presented. An action that increasingly requires the services of a professional, whose involvement of course adds another layer of control. This is the world of the Web 2.0, a world of extreme freedom along certain vectors, extreme freedom for certain types of information. It is also a world of hierarchies and regulations, a world in which a (new) power structure has begun to establish and stratify itself.

If we return to Peter Merholz's essay, this can be seen rather clearly. It's title indicates its about him giving up control, but of course its really an argument that others should give up control. But where should this control go? How should it be done? This is, in Merholz's words, "a scary prospect". In the end he's not just arguing that companies should relinquish control, rather he's arguing that they should relinquish control over to him, his company Adaptive Path, and others that share their philosophy. Reliquish control over to the professionals, those that know what they are doing, know how to control things on the internet.

None of this should in anyway be construed as a critique of the Web 2.0, rather it is a critique of those who push one-sided visions of what the Web 2.0 is. If pushed into an oversimplified judgment I would come out solidly in favor of public APIs, open standard and circulation of information along the passages these systems create. But these transformations do not come unmitigated, they do not come without hooks and catches. In many ways Web 2.0 is just another revolution. Like many revolutionaries the leaders of the Web 2.0 make broad promises of empowerment for their supporters. But history shows time and time again that dust clears and the dirty battles washed away, it is the leaders, the insiders, that are by far the most empowered. At its heart this is the Web 2.0, a power grab by the internet generation, the installation of a new power structure, a new hierarchy, a new system of control.

*for a much more detailed exposition on the standards process and the issues of protocol see Alex Galloway's .

Posted by Abe at 04:59 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

August 25, 2005

Utilitarian Dry Goods

Scattered throughout New York are some very particular sites immune to the luxury organic process outlined in the previous post. The food is cheap, the quality high. And in what should horrify most leftists these sites are markets. More specifically farmer's markets. The fact that no one seems to notice the contradictions is a potent reminder both of the pitiful state of contemporary leftist thought and of the blessed ability of humans to ignore those contradictions that interfere with their lifestyle.

One of the strongest intellectual ties among today's thinkers on both the left and right is a fetishization of the market. Both gift it with the mythical ability to generate that famous nonentity "capitalism". The right of course thinks this is fabulous and the left a horrible thing. Both are terribly wrong though, markets do not lead to capitalism at all. Rather the opposite in fact, capital intensive firms have, from their earliest period (well documented by Ferdinand Braudel) attempted to subvert, manipulate and control markets. Sometimes they find the best way to do this is by creating markets. No, capital driven organizations don't emerge from markets, they can even emerge before any markets exist at all. Markets are just a particular tool they have found rather useful to their needs and desires.

Outdoor markets like the farmer's market are particularly immune from the excesses of corporate drives for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the nomadic nature of the markets themselves. They set up and break down in hours and can shift locations with ease. Their ties to the state, in the form of permits, fees and taxes, obviously exist but are quite loose compared to a fixed store or chartered corporation. And in the case of the farmers market the goods are by necessity designed to move rapidly, from earth to market to dinner. They are fast and nimble enough to avoid the drive of large corporations to make food either as cheap as possible (the crap in the supermarket) to make or as expensive as possible to buy (the somewhat tastier crap in the luxury grocery store).

By just showing up at the farmer's market, and possessing just a bit of food literacy, a New Yorker can eat high quality fresh food at reasonable prices. When it comes to dry goods, food items with long shelf lives, though its a far trickier proposition. There exists a whole class of utilitarian dry goods, triumphs of the industrial process, mass produced food of exceptionally high quality at a low price. Hellman's mayonnaise in America, Barry's Tea in Ireland, Carta Blanca beer in Mexico, Ritter Sport chocolate in Germany... But separating these gems from the mass of cruft in the supermarket is a true artform, and to do a proper taste test would take a luxury amount of money.

What New York needs is not more Whole Foods, more luxury health food stores. No, what it needs is a place for utilitarian dry goods, a modest shop with a small selection of high quality industrial food stuffs. The closest I've found is Brooklyn's Marlow & Sons, but not only do they often slip into the luxury category, but they also are almost certainly kept afloat by both their backroom restaurant and the owner's cash cow next store, Diner. A better model might be Is Wines, a small shop on East 5th Street that only stocks about 15 wines. All are inexpensive and all (that I've tried) are excellent. Quality and quantity are not by any means mutually exclusive, but they do often conflict. But by eliminating quantity in one dimension, the large variety that so many stores insist upon, perhaps its possible to maintain a high quantity in another dimension, sales volume. If provided they quality is right. Or at least one would hope.

Until reality provides a test though, I'd love to make a list of those elusive utilitarian dry goods. High quality, modest prices, mass production. Some of you must have favorites, so please let me know...

Posted by Abe at 07:55 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 22, 2005

Organic Luxury

New York is probably the only city in America with 24 hour health food stores. Don't worry, if the groceries of NY are any barometer, you'll get one in your town soon enough. From the rapidly expanding Whole Foods to the ever nimble Korean delis, grocery shopping in New York is transforming into a luxury/health food experience.

Whole Foods, or as some prefer to call it, "whole paycheck", is the pacesetter. There is a moment of vertigo I experience nearly every time I am inside one. The best trigger is bulk goods section, the bins of nuts and dried fruit. Suddenly I realize "this is a freaking health food store!" A few years ago a health food store was a strange smelling place stocked with food fit only to be eaten for its imaginary medicinal properties. But with a good eye you could cherry pick out a few quality products, fresh made peanut butter, organic juice, an unknown cereal. Now health food is luxury food, money food, another successful marketing operation.

It was quite fitting in a Whole Foods in San Francisco that I first saw the cooption, a large display of organic bananas, Dole branded organic bananas. Organic was once a reaction not just to farm chemicals, but to the massive commercial farming of companies like Dole. But they caught on quick, organic is a way to double prices, what big company isn't down with that?

The earliest warning signs must have been the soy. Soy is a posthippie vegetarians best friend, a great source of vegetable protein. The fake meat section of Whole Foods is another great vertigo trigger. Soy is also a commodity crop industry, a favorite product of the industrial farm giants. Its the soy milk that gets me, its pushed as a healthy alternative to cows milk, a favorite of campus activists nationwide. But milk is one of the last truly regional industries left. Ultra-pasteurization is threatening that, but for the moment most of the milk you find in your grocery store comes from 50 or 100 miles away. Local dairies, local industry. Not only are the health benefits of soy milk dubious, but its a multinational product pushing against some of the last regional products left.

Recently I started buying organic half and half for my coffee, tastes a bit better, or at least I imagine it does. But then I started looking at the small print. The organic half and halfs are run by national brands (although its worth noting one of the biggest is a co-op), the regular ones are from local dairies. Once again leftist food politics it seems are turning into a trojan horse for big industry. Its not all bad, you could say the same about organic profits being a trojan horse by which leftist food politics enter big industry. Is this an even sort of tradeoff at work? It's far to early to know...

In the meantime one thing is becoming clearer in New York, healthy food is becoming luxury food. The statistical link between poverty and weight is a known phenomena in America, could it be that its about to become an entrenched one?

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August 21, 2005

Datamining as the New Advertising

Actually the title is a bit misleading, datamining is not something that replaces advertising, the two are complementary. But while broadcast media operated on a tacit agreement between the producer and audience that the content would be free in exchange for the audience being exposed to ads, it looks like a new tacit agreement is emerging online, the content is free in exchange for the data to mine. Its been slowly cooking for years, cookies being the first real milestone, and like in broadcast no one is rushing to make clear to the audience/users just exactly they are getting themselves into...

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August 15, 2005

The Power of Nightmares (bottom up)

Finally got around to watching The Power of Nightmares, or more accurately the final installment of the three part series. This BBC documentary is something of a fetish object among American Leftists, spoken about in hushed reverent tones as an object that will unveil the hidden truths. "Have you seen the Power of Nightmares? You must see the the Power of Nightmares". The object itself circulates via transcript and torrent, a little googling and you too can be an initiate...

Criticism often says as much about the critic themselves as it does about their target. Director Adam Curtis also directed a four hour documentary on Freud and his followers, so he surely must be aware of that fact. So is the autocratic tone of this film a deliberate maneuver or an unintentional slip on Curtis' part? This is a movie about politicians manipulating facts, but Curtis seems intent on mimicking them. Rather then raising questions it dictates an alternative history. Its clearly a successful tactic, but for me at least it deftly undercuts the purpose of the film. Is Curtis deliberately copping the style? Unconsciously aping it? Or is projecting his own paranoia and monomania onto his targets? Regardless of the truth, it makes the film a bit hard to take seriously, both Curtis and his targets want to tell stories without questions, when in reality the facts at hand are rather uncertain.

The most powerful and effective parts of the documentary where simply the clips of Bush and Rumsfeld selling the war. That they grossly distorted the facts shouldn't come as any surprise to just about anyone who has followed the story in any detail, but watching them in action with a few years of hindsight is quite revealing. These are characters who understand the power of authority and how to put it on television, and the left it seems has no counterpart, with perhaps the exception of director Curtis himself. During this build up the left was busy, working the web, trying to be bottom up, protesting in the streets. Some old ineffective tactics, some new ineffective tactics. Even with online fundraising a new effective tactic. But all the while the right kept pushing the tried and true, get on TV and say it with authority.

The more I look at it the more the rhetoric of emergence, "long tails", and "bottom up" begins to resemble a far older idea, divide and conquer. Only this time the dividing is self inflicted, praised even. That not to say I'm here to blanketly dismiss "bottom up", there is far to much unknown, and too much potential, to do anything of the sort. But until these theories come face to face with concept and application of power, they seem doomed to a particular ineffectiveness. In other words, a nightmare.

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August 14, 2005

Survival of the Fittest / Intelligent Design

I've been holding back on writing about intelligent design for a few weeks. In part its because I'm not sure I can say anything about it better than Steven Shaviro did. But ultimately I'm just too in awe of the tactical brilliance of the "intelligent design" campaign, the latest attempt by religious conservatives to get creationism taught in schools. Intelligent design (in the origin of life sense, not the design as in a profession/process sense) is a beautifully crafted piece of intellectual judo, one that deftly uses the core tenets of science to unmask just how unscientific the defenders of science really are.

For the past century or so the creationism versus evolution debate has essentially been a binary one. The creationists want only creationism taught and as the tone setters for the debate they set up a battle that many darwinians where happy to follow along with. One or the other, not both, not in between. In many ways this is the 100 year setup, a long process to open up the ideological weakness of science's defenders. Intelligent design is the deft counter move. It grabs many of ideological tenets of science and whips them back. All the intelligent design proponents want is for it to be taught alongside Darwin's theory. Or so they claim.

The genius of the tactic is the response it provoked. Rather then thinking rationally, the defenders of evolution knee jerked out a response, they where opposed to teaching intelligent design, only evolution should be taught in schools. An argument fit for an ideology, not a for the defending the tenets of the enlightenment. And in many ways science has of course become an ideology. There are the fundamental faiths, in the scientific method, in the accuracy of math, in our ability to predict the past. Most importantly though there is a priesthood, a set of insiders who the general public is expected to trust. Scientists themselves can challenge the dogma of scientific theories, although it takes great political skill to do so successfully. Most everyone else is expected to accept the word of science the same way a priest wants you to accept the word of god.

This isn't an argument against science, its a highly functional system, it builds its satellites and vaccines just as the Egyptians built their pyramids and the Catholic church its paintings and cathedrals. But science still can't tolerate anything that falls outside its doctrine of thinking, it's strength is how open it is to change, evolution is built into the system. But its only open to change mediated on its own terms and through its own system. Science like any other religion wants to force you into its way of thinking.

The latest maneuvers by the creationists, the intelligent design tactic, lay it all out bare in the open. The defenders of science are defending their faith, they want only evolution taught in school. I like evolution, as theories go its a damn good one with loads of secondary evidence backing it up. Proving any sort of historical theory seems damn near impossible though, so what's wrong with allowing a few more to be taught? I have no problems with "intelligent design" being taught in schools, although I certainly prefer a different sort of intelligent design... But if creationism is going to be taught it should be taught alongside evolution, and perhaps more importantly along side the various theories that most religions have used to make peace with evolution. Let them all stand side by side, call it survival of the fittest, is that something evolution's defenders should be afraid of?

Posted by Abe at 10:41 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

August 08, 2005

In the Bubble (bottom up)

The Doors of Perception conference is perhaps one of the better named (and from a distance more fascinating) events out there. So perhaps its a bit of karmic balance that its director, John Thackara's latest book In the Bubble is so misleadingly titled. There is no dot com bubble in this book, nor any soapy stuff, merely one paragraph long anecdote that never quite relates to the book. Luckily the subtitle, "Designing in a Complex World" is spot on. Thackara's work and experience puts him in a highly privileged position to see what's going on in the design world and the book is something of his guided tour. It's a damn good walk.

I've got a sneaking suspicion that Thackara might be a fellow hypocritical luddite. He certainly has a healthy immunity to much of the high tech worship that strikes so much of the product and information design industry. Its not a traditional reactionary ludditism though, Thackara is concerned with design that works and works on a human scale. And much of the book is concerned with the navigating the multitude of contradictory challenges of "designing in a complex world".

The luddite movement predated Darwin's research and its somewhat unfortunate. The central symbolic act of the luddite, the throwing of shoes into the gears of the new machines is almost always seen as a reactionary act, but in fact it can just as well be seen as an evolutionary act. The luddites where in some ways the first hackers, when the machines where all in the hands of industrialists, gumming up the works was the only hack available, the only way to explore the mechanics. And more importantly to test the machines, break them apart with the goal of making them better. Like the luddites I have a deep fear of technology, particularly when its created for its own sake. But the hypocrisy emerges when a technology works, works well and most importantly works well for humans. This is the technology I love, embrace and sometimes propagate. And to get this sort of technology sometimes you need to throw some shoes in the works.

Design is a process of modulated hypocrisy. Thackara never reaches this conclusion, but he certainly illustrates in the course the books journey. The book is divided into ten thematic chapters, Lightness, Speed, Locality, Flow, etc, etc and, as fitting an exploration of complexity, they often contradict. The human mind of course is amazing at handling contradictions, to ignore the rules of logic is a fundamentally human act. In America liberals are pro abortion, anti death penalty, conservatives anti government, pro military industrial complex. Preachers make careers out of criticizing the very actions they discreetly carried out the night before. People argue for tougher criminal sentences and fight against building prisons near their homes, are militantly prorecyling until they found out it means building loud plants down the street, artists gentrify neighborhoods then fight the "yuppies" that they opened the doors for. Peruse any internet bulletin board and you'll inevitably find people typing messages telling other members to go outside and get away from the keyboard. And most telling people are happy to criticize others of hypocrisy, despite almost certainly being prone to it themselves.

A designer navigating a complex world inevitably needs to pick their focus, pick where their hypocrisy lies. Environmental architects rely on high speed computers filled with toxins to build zero emission buildings. Solar engineers suck massive power off the grid in an effort to build technology that ends it. The project needs to be bounded, a network can potentially, and often functionally does, stretch to infinity or fold recursively inward, fractal-like. If there is a designer, the designer is bounding the project, drawing lines and cutting off aspects to the network. The designer is applying directed energy, the product is not emerging, it is being designed.

In Thakara's "Mobility" section he cites a Swedish study of deliveries in Uppsala region. By optimizing delivery routes it seems "the results were startling" the vehicle fleet could shrink from 19 to 11, the total distance of delivery travel reduced by 39%, etc. Great for the environment, probably good for profit margins. But what about jobs, community and communication? Less delivery equals less work, and less networking. Community is in many ways an outgrowth of inefficiency, slowness advocated the chapter before, allows things to develop, conviviality (chapter 6) and locality (chapter 4). Both of which are probably served by more deliveries, done slower, with space for the idle chatter that lets information circulate across town, small ties to form and networks to grow.

Is it possible to address these contradictions continually? Humans it seems would rather just ignore them, our design choices perpetually solve certain problems and birth new ones behind them. And this is not necessarily bad, perhaps it's only human. Designers and the engineers, inventors and politicians who often play similar roles are in constant states of oscillation. Mass produced and cheap is in one day, handcrafted and intimate the next. A car plant is lauded for bringing jobs to the community and then five years later seen only as source of traffic and pollution. A freeway once liberated people, but now seems to destroy neighborhoods separating one side from another with a gulf far wider in effect then the block it occupies.

Thackara wanders the world where designers are questioning just where to bound their projects. He urges designers to expand their parameters, to think of broader connections and more locality, to watch energy flows and slow down. To design smarter but also go design free. "We are all designers" are his closing words, his books "premise" is "if we can design our way into difficulty, we can designer our way out". What is missing from it all is what design actually is. "Design is what people do" is the answer you can find on the first page, but that makes is pretty much everything human. And I'd actually agree, design can be everything humans do, but it can't be all of them at the same time. Rather design is the process of bounding and prioritizing around a particular set of focuses.

Most design decisions are directed actions that collapse our possibilities, guiding our focus. Often they open up new possibilities too, but only within a particular set of bounds. Picking up a hammer for instance reduces what our hand can do greatly. But it also opens up the possibility of driving in nails, breaking stone and shaping metal. This is a repeated cycle, collapse and release, a process that guides and sometimes directs us in actions. Thackara, along with other proponents of the 'design thinking' meme, wants to redesign design itself. And the book functions as a wonderful guide to the variety of potential spaces that design can enter. This is the back half of the pattern, the release. Design can be released into any number of spaces, but just how does one collapse them into a working process, a working product, not design thinking but a design itself?

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August 02, 2005



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The Long Tail (bottom up)

The latest and greatest bottom up hype is a concept called the Long Tail and its main booster is Wired magazine's editor-in-chief Chris Anderson. Following what's fast becoming bottom up proper protocol Chris has a blog and its devoted to turning the Long Tail into a book. He's a smart writer and its an interesting read as he knowledgeably tells tales from one could call the emerging networked culture. But something has always gritted on me and to understand just why its worth looking at far less digital topic, abortion in America.

The debate over abortion in the US is a strange sort of conflict. On one side you have "pro-life" and on the other side you have "pro-choice". No one its seems is anti anything. Barring perhaps the radical fringes, you don't find pro-choice protesters talking about how they want to deny women the right to make decisions, nor do you find pro-choice activists talking about how they want to kill babies. The two sides are locked in a deep conflict, but they aren't even arguing about the same thing! Or at least not over the same concepts, they are of course battling over the same action. And they are battling over how they want people, society as a whole even, to look at that particular action.

The concept of the Long Tail comes from a reading of another trendy idea in the world of technology intellectuals, the power law distribution. Power law curves show situations of profound inequality, most famously perhaps being Vilfredo Pareto's observation that 20% of all individuals in a society general control 80% of all the wealth. That was a century ago, and it still holds true. More to the point though, power laws have come into vogue and people are finding them everywhere, especially where networks are involved. The long tail refers to the "tail" of the curve, the 80% of the people making 20% of the money.

Now there is a hell of a lot going on in this area, and it makes Chris Anderson's site quite an interesting read as he details the ins and outs of the information and entertainment businesses reacting to the massive network that is the internet. But the long tail, is not a neutral description, rather much like the stances of both sides in the abortion debate it is a deep ideological one. Much the way the abortion warriors are fighting to control the terms of the debate, the long tail is about controlling what the power law distribution is about. "Pay no mind to the 20% with all the power, what's really interesting is what's happening over here under this long tail..."

There is a huge philosophical issue at stake for those who are best termed the technorati, the boosters of high tech and networks roughly clustered around Anderson's Wired Magazine. In this circle an awful lot of hope and thought has been invested in the idea that the internet and other 'open' networks are a democratizing force. The belief that this is true underlies the much of the moral framework that the technorati in. It gives them faith that they are doing the right thing. The discovery that networks tend to develop quickly into situations of inequality, situations that tend to map towards the very 80-20 power laws that characterize the vast inequalities of wealth and power the internet was supposed to route around, this discovery slices straight to heart of any faith in the democratic power of the internet.

In many ways the long tail resembles a classic magician's slight of hand. A big distraction to call one's attention away from the relevant actions. Suddenly power laws are not illustrations of inequity, but ways to call attention away from it. But its increasingly clear that internet is not a massive democratizing force, but rather a standard transition of power. Sure some of the classic late 20th century media powers might fall, there is way more TV to watch and blogs hit hard at the newspaper and magazine models. But rather then having the power law curves fade we just have new powerhouses moving in. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon and the like. Its early on, expect new powers to arise and others to merger. But when the smoke has cleared who wants to bet that the top 20% are still making 80% of the money, the top 20% of sites grabbing 80% of the traffic?

Imagine a medieval lord showing off his serf's vegetables. Talking about how he's empowered them with growing opportunities. Its not then what you'll find on Chris Anderson's blog, except Anderson isn't the lord, just some servant nicely entrenched in the court. The long tail is cast as vast practice of empowering users, freeing them perhaps from the clutches of old media. But ultimately the site is not about freeing anyone, its about seducing and capturing those users, its about building new media kingdoms where the users trade amongst themselves while the technorati lords reap a tax off of every harvest.

Sometimes the tax straight monetary. Ebay is the classic example, like a casino they take a cut out of every transaction. And while Ebay might just be "empowering" thousands or millions of small business people, one wonders just how much more empowered the high ranking Ebay execs and investors are then the average Ebay seller? 80/20 maybe?

Often though "long tail" business is more about information and Anderson stresses the importance of filtering to these businesses, which is spot on. But what he misses is just how asymmetrical the filtering is. Businesses like Amazon, Yahoo and Google filter massive information and then send it back to their users. But they also keep large amounts of the information for themselves and their business partners. Sure they'll give you a slice of what you have, a chance to till some of their information, but in the end they are the lords of their domains, opening what they please (and what benifits them) to the long tail.

I'm pretty certain Anderson and most of his fellow network/technology boosters are not concious of the fact, but there is a strong undercurrent of a power grab to their beliefs. The rhetoric speaks of democratic revolutions that empower everyone, but the reality is that its about empowering a particular set of people. The ability of the internet and its related technologies to upset certain industries, communications systems and political structures is becoming more documented fact and less theory, Anderson's site is great at illustrating some of this pattern. But the particulars of who gains, and more importantly who does not, are far less commented upon.

Does networked technology benefit everyone? Or does it benifit only those who have the access, knowledge and will to use it?

Posted by Abe at 11:38 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack