Finding Your Center

What with the start of a new semester and exposure to a slightly different weltenschauung, a lot of "philosophy" has come my way. If you follow my tweets, you might have seen the pearls that recently came from one professor on the danger of using a pda or phone in class. Not for her the threat to answer the phone for you, or to take it away for the weekend, or to smash the offending device against the wall. She spoke on a higher plane…"Be where you are, be here now". The point being that we students need to be focused on the present, the classroom, and not on what happened last night or is going to happen later today.

While (ahem) doing some research on the web, I came across the social media pyramid and was compelled to write a post on finding balance in your day. A reader took me to task for spending 9 hours a day on social media, as if the pyramid was my daily routine. Folks, I just post information that I think has value…it is not (always) a reflection of my personal agenda. As the Sage of Formosa has said. "You don’t have to believe what you think".

So, in the spirit of sharing information, and not necessarily expressing my personal, firmly held beliefs, I present the Venn Diagram seen above. VDs (a common shorthand among stats students who spend entirely too much time trying to figure probability from these little monsters) are really pretty neat, so if your personality belongs to one or more of the domains listed, see if the VD matches your preference.

And if you want to know my profile, just look for this post on Twitter.

H/T MarketProcessBlog

The Death of Serendipity?

I found this quote while visiting a site that has been in my reader for a couple of years. Honestly, it has not had a continuous presence; I enjoy it for a while, remove its feed, and then some other great site mentions it and I am drawn, like the unsuspecting fly, into the nearly invisible spider’s web of great information.

For some reason, while travelling, I’ve really noticed how I’d fallen into the bad habit of relying on Twitter and aggregaters like TechMeme to channel content for reading. While everyone is warm and fuzzy about WOC, recommendation systems,etc., frankly they scare the innovation right out of me. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, what gets things to the top of the pile is only partly what I vaguely call inherent value. A good part of what is going on is the force of social value, which, IMHO, can be the death of serendipity. (emph. mine)

What has drawn me to the great inter-tube, and has kept my interest for the past 5 years, is that each visit brings the likelihood of learning something new, or being exposed to a different perspective which might open me to new possibilities, or just giving me something else to think and chew on. Rarely have I been disappointed.

Recently, my friend Xark mentioned that he was, if I may paraphrase, reconsidering his usage of his reader, which I took to mean that he was reducing his reading of blogs in response to the powerful force of social media, i.e., Twitter, Facebook, et al. The further implication being, to my ears at least, that blogs might not be as good as the newbies in terms of delivering timely, relevant information. I hope he will straighten me out if I have misunderstood his meaning.

But I get Matthew Hurst’s point in the quote above. To wit, humans self select social relationships. These relationships extend to our business contacts. As we dig ourselves deeper into that web of contact, are we in fact, unintentionally, removing the possibility of serendipity?

To quote the Wikipedia link above:

Serendipity is the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely unrelated.

That is the value that the inter-tube brings to my experience. The richness of new information, new ideas, and new friendships (near and far) is the most important characteristic of the form.

It’s not worth giving up. Keep the reader, folks!



Repaving the Information Highway (My Lane, Anyway)

This blog has been around since February, 2006. It happened that the local paper wrote an article about some local folks that had started to blog. Providentially, the bloggers mentioned happened to be writing about topics that caught our attention; the links opened the door to the blogosphere. Fumbling with bookmarks, and laboriously working through the sites, a whole new experience unfolded. It looked like this was SOMETHING WE COULD DO!

And so it began. Xarker was the guru and community organizer that encouraged us to begin to blog. And we did.

Typepad provided the infrastructure, and showed how easy it was to create (with a lot of help in the background) a smart-looking site to serve as the binding for the words that would spring from our fertile minds and agile fingers.

For a time that was enough. But after a few years, and visits to lots of other sites, we developed an eye for certain things, and like an amateur painter, longed for the site to share some resemblance to our role models. And then came classes in XHTML and CSS, and the knowledge of FTP, and hosting. Then we understood: for the same, small monthly fee paid to Typepad for the infrastructure, we could find a hosting service that would provide us with our own outlet to the blogosphere. And, even better, WordPress would let us have, for free, any one of their thousands of templates. Which we could tinker with, or break, to our heart’s content, using our recently acquired HTML/CSS skills.

So we moved the site and changed its appearance. And we have tinkered a little bit every day (or night) ever since. Some changes lasted for only as long as it took to update and then remove. Others created catastrophic metamorphoses reversed with the help of experts. Others were good, but invisible to our loyal reader(s).

But the march continues. We’ve tried to include artful images with our posts; learning to find, manage, and insert images would be the subject of a post by itself. YouTube, on the other hand, makes it ridiculously easy to insert their material. A recent post had a bit of flash that renders a dynamic image…..who knew?

A new addition to the sidebar is the link to If you believe the future of the web is the semantic web, as we do, then you should know about people like Calais. Every post on this site is scanned by Calais and used to help them develop the next step:

We want to make all the world’s content more accessible, interoperable and valuable. Some call it Web 2.0, Web 3.0, the Semantic Web or the Giant Global Graph – we call our piece of it Calais.

The Calais Web Service automatically creates rich semantic metadata for the content you submit – in well under a second. Using natural language processing, machine learning and other methods, Calais analyzes your document and finds the entities within it. But, Calais goes well beyond classic entity identification and returns the facts and events hidden within your text as well.

If you’re a blogger, do your bit and consider letting Calais use your posts to build the foundation of the semantic web.

And today, the latest modification. But first, some background. One of the greatest Christmas presents ever was the iPod Nano we received a few years ago. Then XMRadio found its way into our cars. All of a sudden, we could listen to music anywhere. And we could buy songs! I know, the kids (and plenty of boomers) have been on this train for a long time. Call us a convert. But once converted, it wasn’t long before Pandora and RadioParadise were staples of the desktop and muted companions for the long evenings of study. Long dormant senses were revived, and music has become a larger presence in our life. The question became one of finding a way to extend the pleasure of our musical adventure to our visitors. The solution was……

LastFM provides a wonderful widget for WordPress. If we give LastFM a list of our favorite artists, they will create a library of songs. Even better, they will provide the code so that we can provide a connection for our reader(s) to the kind of music that we like. At no cost!

So, please notice the LastFM logo in the sidebar. Take a minute to listen to a song or two, and if you like the music, or have a suggestion, pass it on to us. And stay tuned for the next iteration of the never-finished and always-under-construction website of the Agricoli.


Uncertainity and the Newspaper

 Clay Shirky sheds some light on the chaos that is the current state of the newspaper business. Lots of time, money, and thought has been applied by the problem, yet no solution has been identified, at least to the satisfaction of the owners and their employees. Shirky’s analysis of the situation demonstrates that there may not be a solution to the problem, at least not right now.

His post is deserving of a read in its entirety, but I cannot resist the temptation to post the best bits of his words…but be sure and read the entire post:

The problem newspapers face isn’t that they didn’t see the internet coming. They not only saw it miles off, they figured out early on that they needed a plan to deal with it, and during the early 90s they came up with not just one plan but several…

Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals… Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply pointing out that the real world was looking increasingly like the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans but saviors…

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of its most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away…

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem…

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing…

And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution.They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to…

If you want to know why newspapers are in such trouble, the most salient fact is this: Printing presses are terrifically expensive to set up and to run. This bit of economics, normal since Gutenberg, limits competition while creating positive returns to scale for the press owner, a happy pair of economic effects that feed on each other…

The old difficulties and costs of printing forced everyone doing it into a similar set of organizational models; it was this similarity that made us regard Daily Racing Form and L’Osservatore Romano as being in the same business. That the relationship between advertisers, publishers, and journalists has been ratified by a century of cultural practice doesn’t make it any less accidental.

The competition-deflecting effects of printing cost got destroyed by the internet, where everyone pays for the infrastructure, and then everyone gets to use it. And when Wal-Mart, and the local Maytag dealer, and the law firm hiring a secretary, and that kid down the block selling his bike, were all able to use that infrastructure to get out of their old relationship with the publisher, they did…

Print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to talk radio hosts to bloggers. The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model. So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

Imagine, in 1996, asking some net-savvy soul to expound on the potential of craigslist, then a year old and not yet incorporated. The answer you’d almost certainly have gotten would be extrapolation: “Mailing lists can be powerful tools”, “Social effects are intertwining with digital networks”, blah blah blah. What no one would have told you, could have told you, was what actually happened: craiglist became a critical piece of infrastructure. Not the idea of craigslist, or the business model, or even the software driving it. Craigslist itself spread to cover hundreds of cities and has become a part of public consciousness about what is now possible. Experiments are only revealed in retrospect to be turning points.

In craigslist’s gradual shift from ‘interesting if minor’ to ‘essential and transformative’, there is one possible answer to the question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did…

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

We don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is. It could be Craig Newmark, or Caterina Fake. It could be Martin Nisenholtz, or Emily Bell. It could be some 19 year old kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won’t recognize as vital until a decade hence. Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past.

For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the reporting we need.

The lesson from Shirky is that there is no lesson; there is only opportunity.





Why Twitter?


An update from Philip Downer on the circumstances of the twitter activity in Bozeman. Good Job!

At a recent meeting the Sage of Formosa confronted me about my enthusiasm for and participation in the twitter phenomenon (although phenomenon is probably a dated reference…it’s here to stay). The only response I could think of was to observe that social media provides immediate news and information, and for an information junkie like me, that’s better than crack.

It took one day for life to provide an example of what I like about the new media. Yesterday, I read a story in my RSS feed from the Bozeman Chronicle about a major gas explosion that levelled a big part of a block in downtown Bozeman. I immediately alerted some folks that love Bozeman as much as I do. Apparently, many other folks have the same degree of attraction for that neat town as I do, as the link illustrates. Here it is…

The explosion that rocked downtown Bozeman shortly after 8 o’clock Thursday morning was heard across the country almost immediately.

Before national media had a chance to react, Internet aficionados had already spread the news via social networking sites such as

“It’s immediate. It’s rapid. As far as an unofficial news source goes, I think it was invaluable today,” said Michael Becker of the MSU Office of Communications and Public Affairs, who created the Twitter hashmark #bozexplod on Thursday.

The tag effectively filtered search results and grew to the No. 2 topic trend on the social networking site.

“If all Twitter did today was help people who needed information, or help reporters find people to talk to, then it was a great resource,” he said.

The users also proved to be a self-regulating bunch. Anyone posting speculation about injuries or the cause of the blast on Twitter was quickly rebuffed, leaving only posts with accurate information and links to photos, blogs and even a Google map including alternate routes and affected buildings…

“We can’t control the Internet, but we can use the power of the Internet, the power to collaborate,” Philip Downer said Thursday evening.

Downer and David Howlett of Manifest Creative, a Bozeman Web design and Internet marketing firm, turned to their computers immediately after hearing the morning blast.

Downer said the experience demonstrated the “viral effect” of messages traveling through cyberspace, constantly reposted and passed on to an ever-expanding group of people.

“Everyone that was there today really gets a feeling for social media,” said Howlett

But Twitter wasn’t the only form of instant communication used to spread news of the disaster.

On Google, Bozeman searches, including “Bozeman Daily Chronicle,” “Bozeman explosion” and “Bozeman news” were three of the top four Google trends in the United States Thursday, giving them a “volcanic” hotness rating on the site.

In addition, local members of Facebook created an almost instantaneous spread of text and picture messages. Before long, outpourings of support appeared on the site, and individuals formed groups to reminisce about better times at the R Bar and the Legion .

Susan Andrus, who spent Thursday updating the Chronicle’s Twitter at, said she used the forum because she knew people would be searching for the latest and most reliable news and the paper was an obvious source for that information.

“We don’t have a town crier, you know?” Andrus said Thursday night.

This really illustrates two points. First, the newspaper, in its current form, cannot provide the amount and depth of information in the time frame demanded by the newest/youngest/most connected consumers of information.

The second point is that the local paper supplied information via their twitter feed, but it took other parties to organize facebook and set up a hashtag for the explosion on twitter.

All of which serves to point out that information is now best found at the intersection of journalism and social media…..and the newspaper industry better figure that out pronto.

It’s time for the Sage to get on board the Information Expressway……..

Doing Your Thing – WordPress, Hosting, & Blogs


Over the Christmas holidays, I came across an article from one of my favorite bloggers, Dr.Mercury, which described the process by which one could set up their very own website. As someone who has blogged for just over three years, happily using the services of Blogger, Typepad, and WordPress, moving onto my own domain, using a template that I could really tinker with, was simply too much to pass up.

And so the journey began. The domain name had been secured three years ago, and signing up with a hosting service was painless. The easy to understand posts by the good Dr. Mercury hustled me through the setup phase, and before you could say "I love to blog", I was ready to go. The first post felt as if truly belonged all to me.

The past few weeks have been a time to tinker, as time permitted, making minor tweaks, installing new plugins, looking at and finally beginning to understand php, and generally digging into the innards of blogging.

It has been rewarding, satisfying, and slightly addictive.

And a lot of fun…