Failure to communicate

A growing segment of the technologically-enabled population is developing what I would best describe as a "derision" towards those who are not technically competent, for whatever reason. This sentiment is immediately apparent in the technical support industry, but I've seen it from peers who've never been formally introduced to tech support as well.

The common factor in the derision appears to be a result of differences between the two groups of people involved: those who feel they have invested much time in competence, and those who they feel have not. Over time, repeated communication failures left unaddressed appear to result in a build-up of resentment towards one (or, more often, both) parties.

One of the clearest examples of this can be found in comics that focus on these conflicts, such as Dilbert, Userfriendly, or w00t; in each, one can find the viewpoint of the "geeks" trying (and commonly failing) to communicate with the "newbies" — often with disastrous results. One can draw parallels to the similarly frustrating interactions between management and employees, as well; the stress of communication failures doesn't seem to be limited to outside interactions.

Standing guard at the far extreme of this reaction is the "Bastard Operator From Hell" series. For many years the saga has enchanted those who have been burned by IT work; at the core of all the angst-laced stories is the story of someone who used to try until it was hopeless, but now has turned to the dark side. Many techs wish they could do some of the things in the stories to their users, even in a humorous, non-lethal manner.

Some efforts exist to counter this trend; the perl-beginners mailing list handles a steady flow of traffic in polite Q&A with novice users; it's worked out wonderfully, thanks to Casey's efforts. Other beginner outreach efforts surely exist as well.

I'm not sure how to stem this tide of bitterness towards others; perhaps including social interaction training with computer training? It's a tough call, and I don't have the information to make it. Comments welcome; specific incidences of kindness would be nice to know about.

Right of passage

During last night's game of Monopoly, I introduced a new twist into the game: right of passage. Trading properties with other players always results in a hotel war, so I tried a new twist: instead of asking for large amounts of cash or trying to execute an imbalanced trade, I requested mutual right of passage: that is, neither of us pays the full rent on the property being traded; instead, only minimum rent will be charged.

It worked out spectacularly. The other player got a complete set, I had passage to one of the three hotels, and the game continued. As time passed, we both had several chances to exercise the new agreement. Near the end, I escaped a loss by landing on a space that couldn't charge me; while I lost, it was an unexpected reprieve.

The dynamic of last night's game was changed rather distinctly by the introduction of a new trade agreement. Give it a shot, the next time you find yourself playing Monopoly, and tell me how it goes. I'd love to hear about other variations out there, as well; the game's been around for a good chunk of a century, so there's probably a lot.

Reporting in eight directions

The community push to syndicate every viewpoint, every post, through semi-interoperable standards like RSS and Atom has resulted in a dramatic shift in the media power balance; media organizations can no longer embargo certain topics, hoping they'll fade into the background noise. In most media organizations (newspapers, radio stations, etc.), you can find topics that are "blacklisted"; I'd never turn to Fox News to hear more about how Fox nearly sued itself over a Simpsons episode; I'd never turn to a corporation's blog to read more about one of their internal memos. In each case, I can rightly presume – these days – that they'll put their short-term interests ahead of longer-term goals, such as honesty and forthrightness.

The problem with embargoes is that they have a dramatic effect, in a world where the media is controlled by a few, not many. I pick up my local newspaper these days to understand how they think people are thinking; they provide a good viewpoint, and state it clearly. That's only one viewpoint, though — and if something were to happen that was an embarrassment to its financial supporters, I'm reasonably certain it'd never see the light of day, either as an article or an editorial.

That's why I read hundreds of RSS feeds. These days, everyone has an opinion (1.5 million people at Blogger, 1 million people at LiveJournal); this results in a new problem, isolating viewpoints I'm interested in hearing more about. I can guarantee that if one person refuses to talk about an issue, another person will happily do so (and probably already has); with millions of viewpoints on millions of things to choose from, I can tap an endless supply of opinion and fact to educate myself more effectively than I ever could with my local paper alone.

It's like Master George Xu said: You must be moving in eight directions. If someone blocks you one direction, you have seven other directions to move in; no matter what direction is blocked, there's always several left to you.

Eventually my local paper will discover the joys of syndicating the news, either for free or for profit, and then I'll be able to include their selection of viewpoints in my daily education. They don't seem to right now, though, and while their viewpoints are valuable enough, they're not enough to pull me to their site more than once a month (or less) — or to subscribe to the print edition, their primary revenue source. Sometimes I miss the local news, though; I'd happily pay for a monthly electronic-only subscription, if one was offered.

Continue reading "Reporting in eight directions" »

Identifying the supernodes

Based on the top 100 listed at's community feedlist, one third of the news I read is read by the other 125 people. This list is generated from the top 100 feeds out of everyone who's uploaded OPML; you can do so, too. Just create an account and you're set to go.

With this data, you could identify what blogs the top 100 most-read bloggers *aren't* reading, read them, and feed them interesting tidbits that they might not see otherwise. You could customize your blogging for any audience. You could target only B-list bloggers. You could create a directed network graph of who's reading who, find out who isn't reading who, and fill in the gaps.

If this new service provided an aggregate dataset, I could teach people to become supernodes. Unfortunately, the aggregate dataset being collected by this service is not available for download. I suggest contacting Dave and asking him to please republish the aggregated information in XML form.

Subtle Times at Floating Atoll

Recently, I've noticed more flirting than usual from the girls I interact with in my daily life; standing at the bike rack, working at the coffee shop, playing pool at the bar; I'm rather unaccustomed to the attention. It seems to be unrelated to my physical appearance, or at least the parts of it that I can change (haircut and clothes); I surmise, then, that I've started broadcasting some sort of "low-key" signal expressing interest.

It could be the other way around, though; I may have just recently learned how to interpret some "low-key" signal that I'm not aware of, such that it seems that now everyone's flirting with me; maybe they already were, and I just couldn't tell. Maybe it's both.

I think that successful low-key flirting requires both parties to actively work towards communication, even if the total conversation consists of eye contact on your way out the door. It's hard to say, but I suspect that it's similar to how your olfactory sense works: every nerve (person) in your nose (life) reacts differently to a given smell (interaction), and it's up to your brain to somehow make some sense of those reports and react appropriately.

Each time you interact with someone you're attracted to, dedicate a few seconds of thought (not too much) to the interaction. Don't worry about extracting useful conclusions from it, just think back to the interaction, compare it to other interactions, and then get on with whatever you're doing. Occasionally you'll know for sure that someone was attracted to you — and as you think back, you might suddenly realize that an interaction you thought was friendly was actually a flirt.

Most social groups have some forum where discussion about interactions is accepted; stereotypically, girls go the bathroom and guys go the bar. Over time, each person assembles in their mind some subconscious compendium of low-key signs and probable meanings; sharing situations with others allows this to happen much more effectively, as you can air several opinions about any given situation. That's at the core of my current social interaction theory: first, interactions; second, interpretation; third, comparison.

Continue reading "Subtle Times at Floating Atoll" »


Many put a lot of effort into the look and feel of their website, and then watch it reduced to plain-looking HTML in RSS readers.  After seeing Joi's feed reduced in this manner, I decided to try applying the rather elegant style from his site to his feed.  I met with success.  Here's how I did it.

Update: Sam Ruby provides some technical guidance; I've updated the RSS 2.0 and Atom instructions.  The RSS instructions may change again soon once a way is found to move the stylesheet out of the content and into the XML; the Atom feed is now HTML and XML compliant, however, readers will need to be configured to look for the stylesheet link.  Thanks, Sam!


Backup your templates before trying this.

If you're the auther of software that renders the HTML it receives from feeds, I strongly recommend reading Mark's post about sanitizing RSS feeds, and then following his advice.  This implementation of RSS stylesheets will be changing to be more like the Atom way, as the current method wreaks too much undesired havoc on readers.

Replace with the URL to the desired stylesheet; for MovableType users, I recommend styles-site.css; for TypePad users, styles.css.

This is an experiment, and may break things; there's a bug with Feed on Feeds, for instance. The RSS approach violates the specification; however, your feed will validate as XML.

These directions will only work as expected if your feed is both full-content and HTML.  MovableType's default templates do not ship with either of these features; I strongly urge using the full-content, HTML enabled RSS templates — and verify the content type on the first line of each template if you're installing these, as they aren't UTF-8 by default.

After making these changes, please check to make sure that your feed is still usable; subscribing to the feeds in an RSS reader works well for this, as does FEED validator.

Tips on how to do this for other feed formats not listed below are welcomed; if I've left out your favorite syndication format, that can change.

RSS 1.0 and 2.0

Search for the <content:encoded> tag (or, if that's not present, the <description> tag) in your template; make sure it's the one that contains the entry body of your posts; for MovableType users, this would be the one that contains <$MTEntryBody>.  Immediately after the tag, before any other content, add the following text:

<![CDATA[<link rel="stylesheet" href="" type="text/css" title="styled" />]]>


Search for the <feed ... > tag in your template; inside the tag, before the <entry> tag, add the following text:

<link rel="stylesheet" href="" type="text/css" title="styled" />

Links: Brent set me down this path in the first place; Morbus discussed this, too; Anil talked about this a year ago; Liz researched CSS and Atom; Michael does a lot of research, including an actual proposal for styled Atom; Mark talked about styles and syndication; Gadgetopia's audience chimes in.

Continue reading "RSS with CSS [DOES NOT WORK]" »

We can help you hear the voices.

It's just having an audio connection open with the other person as you both go about doing whatever you were doing, a persistent phone call, if you will.

This is nice between two people, sure, but what happens when we move #JoiIto to a system like this? How noisy would it be? How would it scale? And is there a way to do it that would work for Windows, Mac and Linux?

Grant, Joi, and John are all discussing something that's existed in the sci-fi and military circles for a much longer time: continuous audio communication. Starship Troopers makes a perfect example; a swarm of troopers, all linked to their commanders at any time they wish. A primary protagonist in the novel Xenocide exists only through her expression of self via electronic mediums -- occasionally visual, but primarily aural.

We're on the cusp of changing the way humans communicate forever. More and more people have discovered the power of instant messaging, as texting takes off overseas and all major operating systems ship messenger clients. The only remaining limit to this always-on connection has been the social ramifications of being connected: the technological warts on your skull.

With the rise in popularity of Star Trek (and science fiction in general), a growing number of people have been exposed to the concept of machine augmentation. In the books and in the movies there's cyborgs; people who, for one reason or another, are augmented with (or replaced entirely by) machines. For those who see technology as a plague, this is one of the worst nightmares: augmented humans.

Cell phones have introduced a completely different force into motion, the power of large groups with effective communication. The ability to be connected by audio to anyone in the world is coming into reach, slowly. A major forward jump towards this occured when cell phones began to saturate the teenage market, thanks in part to their early adopter, computer-friendly parents.

Such a jump will occur with the advent of computer-driven headsets. Using low-power wireless chips (and, if desired, certain blue-sky power sources) a human being can be put in touch with a computer, any time of day or not. Most people are accustomed to the computer being a telephone - so I'd like to introduce headset "party lines".

If you're interested in talking to whoever's in range of your wireless, flick a switch; now you've got an automatic party line, joined by anyone else who's in range. While the potential for abuse in public could be strong, the ripples would make a wonderful complement to instant messenging.

Texting could be turned into a permanent audio channel into someone's ear, providing a Flash website that channels the users' microphones straight into your ear - adjusted for volume and filtered, of course. With an aural voicemail-like interface, messages can be replied to, ignored, deleted, etc.

One unexpected change comes from the direction of IRC: open public spheres of communication. You must choose to join in, and you can leave at any time; conversation occurs whenever it will. The need to respond is somehow absent; those who lack the ability to find a comfortable silence may have much better luck using IRC. It's pretty neat stuff, and I'd like to channel it directly into my ear.

Unfortunately, I can't spend all of my time walking around muttering an audio commentary of my life - even with a headset. While fun, it would become distracting. In the interests of keeping the conversation lively, though, I'd be happy to stream a video feed from the earpiece; a small camera would be easy to merge with most headsets.

In the end, my goal is simple: I'd like to bring anyone who's willing to participate into the videoconference I'm holding with the world. It's a live performance; y'all are invited.

Missing persons geo-RSS feeds

After AccordionGuy posted this missing persons report, I realized that missing persons reports would be a wonderful application for geo-tagged RSS feeds.

If I could subscribe to all missing persons reports within 100 miles of me, odds are that I'd see at least one of them someday, identify them, and report it.

The Amber Alert system is a wonderful idea, intended to let citizens know about missing persons the instant something happens; I feel that providing tech-enabled citizens with an easy way to see missing persons reports relevant to their locality would be a highly beneficial activity for a non-profit to take over.

In the meantime, if you live in the Toronto vicinity, please click the link above and keep your eyes out; it's the most I can do from out here in the northwest.

A primary reason for having them in RSS is for syndication on other sites; if every government site included a picture of a random missing person, every time you hit a page on the site, there'd be a tremendous amount of exposure to human eyeballs -- and that's a very good thing.

The Missing Kids website has a rotating Java applet that displays 12 at a time.

Why I'm an Acolyte of the Cult of Dean

Normally I'll have nothing to do with any sort of organized religion, as almost every one has an aggressive branch of proselytism. It's interesting, though; I've never been averse to being spiritual, to having faith in things, etc.

Howard Dean's found a way to proselytise without being rude: provide an open forum for people to congregate, and never waver from what's in his heart. I think this method works for anybody, but I've never seen anyone with the power to go for President realize this; it sounds like JFK might have been the last.

Interestingly, those are some of the core principles that we're discovering at the roots of this whole "blogging" thing; you cannot waver from the guidance of your heart, you must be honest and direct. The technological implementation of blogging is where we find the community-building, though; some provide comments, some provide forums, some link to others, some quote others.

The root principle is the same, though. He's following the course that's true to his beliefs, and inviting those who wish to walk with him to talk. He's actively trying to communicate, by doing whatever it takes to let people talk. In addition to the traditional press releases, he's tapping into every means of communication he can find in order to allow people to talk -- and that shows a respect for something higher than some campaign.

Given the reaction of the people (and myself) to Dean, it seems evident that a need has been growing for a certain kind of leader: someone who knows how to both speak and listen, with their heart for guidance. While the world of blogs has an incredible surfeit of these people, American society has very, very few. Dean has demonstrated that it's possible to make it in politics without allowing the corruption in; his campaign reminds the citizens in the trenches that it is possible, after all, for good people to succeed in politics without corruption.

Link: Garance Franke-Ruta wrote a wonderful article about how Dean is awaking in his followers a long-dead sense of faith; it's the trigger for this article; definitely worth reading.

A thousand monkeys filtering advertising

A common thread between the most effective forms of online advertising is the introduction of a hyperlink to a targeted user. In this respect, there is no difference between Google text ads, Orbitz pop-ups, and DoubleClick banner ads: for the advertisement to be effect, the viewer must follow a link.

The browser market is ripe for plugin that, like Vipul's Razor, harnesses the efforts of many humans to identify and block unwanted advertisements. Users have proven with the SpamNet that they are willing to flag spam for the greater good, as long as it serves them as well; browsers should provide a mechanism for them to do so. Once the browser detects a community-reported ad, it can automatically obscure it – or remove it completely.

This solution is in no way limited to banner ads. When a blog comment is identified by the community as spam, it can be hidden from view on all participating sites. When instant messenger spam is identified, it can be filtered before it ever reaches the client. When an RSS article is identified as an advertisement, it can be filtered by the reader before ever seeing the light of day.

As these systems are implemented (and linked together), mass advertising becomes less cost-effective — the less customized the advertisement, the sooner it'll be tagged by the community; the more customized the advertisement must be, the more expensive it is to produce. Since advertising can't succeed when costs outweigh income, at a certain critical point they'll start losing money on the ads. That's considered a "win" in my book.

Link: Blueblog wonders: "can I live in a spam free world?".

Link: Kalsey writes the comment spam manifesto; I support it fully.

Link: Kalsey's written about distributed comment spam blocking as well, and I never even realized. Must read.

Note: This'd be useful for preventing wiki link spam, as well; when someone tries to introduce a link that's believed to be advertising by the community, the change could be delayed pending approval — or rejected outright.

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