[joho] JOHO March 9, 2007

  • From: David Weinberger <self@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: joho@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sat, 10 Mar 2007 18:09:12 -0500

Journal of the
Hyperlinked Organization
March 9, 2007
Editor: David Weinberger (self@xxxxxxxxxxx)
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  | CONTENTS                                    |
  |                                             |
  | THE ABUNDANCE OF MEANING: If too much       |
  | information is noise, what's too much       |
  | meaning?                                    |
  |                                             |
  | RELEVANCY: When there's an abundance of     |
  | worthwhile pages on just about any topic,   |
  | search engines need to evolve.              |
  |                                             |
  | BOOK STUFF: (1) Why finishing a book        |
  | sucks, (2) the new book's site, and (3)     |
  | the book's word cloud                       |
  |                                             |
  | BioMed Central embodies many of the         |
  | current trends.                             |
  |                                             |
  | WHY DO MOVIES SUCK?: We don't make that     |
  | many movies, we invest heavily in them,     |
  | and yet most of the comedies aren't funny,  |
  | the suspensers aren't suspenseful, the      |
  | action ones are incoherently edited. Why    |
  | is that?                                    |
  |                                             |
  | COOL TOOL: The O'Reilly Hacks series.       |
  |                                             |
  | BOGUS CONTEST: Suggest a Daily Open-Ended   |
  | Puzzle.                                     |
  |                                             |
  | Sorry for taking so long to publish         |
  | another edition of this newsletter. It's a  |
  | combination of my adulterous relationship   |
  | with my blog (it means nothing to me -      |
  | you're the ones I love) and my general      |
  | anxiety at having finished Everything Is    |
  | Miscellaneous.                              |
  |                                             |
  | I turned it in so long ago. My editor at    |
  | Times Books, Robin Dennis, did a most       |
  | excellent job making it better. For         |
  | example, while it started as a book about   |
  | the journey of a three-legged rabbit out    |
  | for revenge against an unnaturally          |
  | lucky gambler,  Robin turned it into a      |
  | business-y book about the history, meaning  |
  | and effect of the miscellanizing of         |
  | information. (Being edited by Robin was a   |
  | great experience. Thanks, Robin.)           |
  |                                             |
  | Since turning it in, there's been nothing   |
  | to do but watch soap operas and yell at     |
  | the neighboring children. Somehow that's    |
  | managed to suck up all my time.             |
  |                                             |
  | See the article below about why finishing   |
  | a book sucks.                               |
  | IT'S A JOHO WORLD                           |
  |                                             |
  | Jeez, a lot has gone on since the previous  |
  | issue. It seems to me that I've done a      |
  | lot of writing, interviews, consulting,     |
  | speaking, and a whole bunch of yelling      |
  | about Net political issues (Net neutrality  |
  | rules! Or at least I wish it did), all      |
  | adding up to very busy days that I can't    |
  | remember even by lunch time. I also blog too|
  | much and spend happy time at the Harvard    |
  | Berkman Center for Internet & Society.      |
  |                                             |
  | I've done a bad job of keeping track of     |
  | all of this, unfortunately, because,        |
  | somehow, Small Pieces Loosely Joined has    |
  | become the title of my biography.           |
  |                                             |
  | Did I mention the blogging?                 |
  |                                             |
  | http://www.JohoTheBlog.com                  |
  | http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/               |

Every abundance generates its own pitfall. An
abundance of wealth can lead to waste, moral
corruption and even revolution if it isn't
distributed with a modicum of fairness. An abundance
of information becomes noise if we can't navigate
it. But what about the abundance of meaning we've
developed with the arrival of the Web? If too much
information becomes noise, what does too much
meaning become?

As Bill Clinton did not say, that all depends on
what the meaning of meaning is.

It is ironic or perhaps predictable that "meaning"
has one of the widest meanings in our language. It
goes all the way from the clear and precise
definition of a word in a standard dictionary, to
the ultimate amorphousness of all amorphousnesses:
the Meaning of Life. [Insert your own "42" joke
here]. What something or someone means can be a
definition ("I meant 'funny' in the haha sense"), a
consequence ("This means war!"), an essence ("The
meaning of Christmas"), or an intention ("I didn't
mean to squish your hat"). And more. Meaning is all
over the map. And then it's also the map.

I want to take "meaning" in one particular way:
Meaning as the sense we make of something, as when
we put something in context, show how it relates,
draw out hidden consequences or roots, or reveal its
value. That's not the Meaning of Life, but it's also
not "What does the word 'eleemosynary' mean?"

It used to be hard to make sense of things, so we
relied on a few people who could do it for us. The
evening news broadcast featured the National Dad
telling us How It Was. Encyclopedias may not have
given us all the facts, but they condensed the big
picture into a little picture that was unarguable.
Heck, you might as well argue with the encyclopedia!
Columnists and magazines with well-recognized slants
gave our side its story, whatever that side was. Of
course there was lively debate - before the Net we
weren't complete idiots - but the debate was either
between media stars (Norman Mailer vs. Gore Vidal,
William F. Buckley vs. Norman Mailer, Norman Mailer
vs. Norman Mailer) or was as local as our living
room, classroom or bar. You could only hear distant
voices if they were famous because a voice you could
hear at a distance was by definition famous.

Now there is an abundance of ways of making sense of
things. (i) Blogs give a billion people the
possibility of making sense of things in public.
(ii) News sites such as www.Digg.com and
www.Reddit.com let readers decide which stories are
important. (iii) The endless traversability of links
means we can construct contexts of understanding by
clicking, and there are a near-infinity number of
paths we can take. (iv) Tags are simple statements,
context free, of what a page or a photo means to an
individual, from which emerges a topology of social

While each of these help us to make sense of things,
they simultaneously throw in our face the fact that
there's so much to be made sense of and we don't
agree how to do it. The linked structure of the Web
brings our differences close. Even if we don't often
make the trip, our awareness of endlessly multiple
meanings changes meaning's nature.

None of these changes rip up the old rule book.
Rather, they render unarguable what we already
suspected. They settle meaning's hash. And put
together, perhaps they point to a larger shift. For

        We've known forever that others hold
        different beliefs and values with as much
        sincerity as we do. In the past, we've often
        managed to discount those beliefs through an
        assumed imperialism of culture, religion,
        knowledge and morals. In our recent past,
        we've become much less comfortable doing
        that. We try to respect differences, except
        for those we term extremists, terrorists,
        cultists, bozos and smokers. But the Web
        confirms the plurality of standpoints and
        makes it clear that many heathen ideas are
        actually quite well developed.

        The variousness of meaning proves it does
        not come from any single source - not G-d,
        nature, or brain physiology.

        Multiple meanings add value. Meaning is
        therefore shown to increase as it becomes
        fuller, more entwined, harder to pin down.
        Our old defensive antipathy to ambiguity
        actually made the world less interesting.

        A word that can be entirely captured in a
        definition is a legalism. By penning it up
        in a simple definition without enough room
        for it to turn around, meaning is deprived
        of significance. Ambiguity isn't a failure
        of meaning; it is its achievement.

        Our new flexibility shows that we make sense
        of the world - we _mean_ the world - not in
        the abstract but in response to some need,
        desire or itch. I tag the photo of me in a
        Speed-O  "Italian vacation" when I first
        upload it, "Buy trunks" when I sober up, and
        "Hide from the kids" when constructing the
        family album. Meanwhile, you tag it "Odd
        sunburns" for your collection. There is no
        such thing as an "absolute" tag.

All these little shifts work toward the big shift
we've been heading towards for the past few hundred
years: driving a wedge between meaning and the real.
We began our Western culture with an assumption that
meaning and being are two sides of the same coin:
Meaning, like the real, is independent of us,
eternal, knowable, and orderly. In fact, the Greeks
assumed that to exist, a thing must exist as
something: A man, a plan, a canal, Panama.
Everything is something.

Then, over time, meaning and reality began to go
their separate ways. Early on in the delaminating of
the two, G-d stepped in to hold them together: G-d
created things, their meaning, and their order. Over
the centuries we watched as the two separated, until
Sartre nauseated us by vividly describing a tree
that shed every last shred of its meaning.

But that low point in the history of meaning
couldn't stand. The moments of existential dread
when the world lacks the common decency to assemble
itself into trees and rocks are aberrations - the
world's own unwatchable Speed-O moment. Sartre's
separation of reality and meaning was an
intellectual value judgment that decided that
meaning was the imposter, while the real was, well,

What looked like fatal weaknesses of meaning
are emerging as strengths. Yes, meaning - the sense
we make of things - is temporary, based on our
concerns at the moment, and part of an incoherent
and ambiguous jumble of relationships. We make
meaning together. Meaning disappears with us just as
surely as our fear of the dark does. Yes, the
differences surfaced unavoidably on the Web cannot
be resolved, will not be resolved. We are stuck
talking with one another forever. Even after The
Rapture ends time and history, those of us left
behind will be arguing with one another about
whether it was really The Rapture, about who got
taken who should have been left behind, and about
who looked like he could stand to lose a little
weight when ascending to Heaven naked.

We are stuck with an abundance of meaning.


So, if too much information is noise, what is too
much meaning?

Add enough marbles to your marbles bag, and before
too long you can't find your favorites. A bag of
marbles doesn't get any smarter no matter how many
marbles you put in. That's what information is like.

Meaning as sense-making is the opposite of a bag of
marbles. Things gain meaning by being connected to
other things: It's similar to this, contained in
this, derives from that, could be used for that
other thing, reminds me of something that reminds me
of something else. Every connection adds to the
potential for understanding. And what is too much
understanding? I don't know, but I sure wish we'd
try it for a change.

But it's not all marbles and rapture. Meaning can
overwhelm understanding. We can be aware of so many
different ways of taking something that we feel
powerless to choose among them. Some people take
drugs to feel that way. There are moments of poetry
that overflow with meaning. There are times when the
multiplicity of ways in which we make sense of our
world fills us with despair, and times when it fills
us with joy. There is no one way in which we have
too much meaning.

So, in a way that seems either inevitable or too
clever by half, the answer to the question "What is
too much meaning?" depends on what meaning we make
of it.


In 1995, Yahoo was the coolest kid on the block.
Jerry Yang and David Filo had started it with the
same impulse that kicked off blogging: Let's share
the fruits of our browsing with others. They'd found
so many sites to like that they had to figure out a
way to organize them. Years later, Joshua Schachter
faced exactly the same problem and invented
http://del.icio.us (later bought by Yahoo) to enable
users to organize a list of sites by tagging them
for themselves and others. Jerry and David in the
mid 1990s instead created a browsable taxonomic

Although their initial impulse was to spread the joy
of what was on the Web, Yahoo's unexpected success
turned it into a gatekeeper. Getting your site
selected for inclusion in the Yahoo tree was a big
deal. And the selection process was a black box: You
could nominate your site, but there was no way to
tell why it was selected or rejected.

Nevertheless, that solution worked well when
there were a million pages on the Web and search
engines were wimpy. There weren't that many
worthwhile pages on, say, bird watching, so you
could trust Yahoo to have found a handful of good
ones and to have spared you the dozens of crap ones.
Sure, Yahoo faced problems as the Web got larger.
The pile of pages to be sifted got bigger, and it
required more and more employees to clamber through
the existing tree to make sure none of its fruit had
become withered with age or had gone wormy with
spam. (Yeah, work that metaphor, loverboy!)

But the growth of the Web during the late '90s
tipped the scale, changing the equation and our
expectations. Yahoo initially dealt with the
abundance of sites by finding a rough cut of the
worthy ones. But now that there's an abundance not
just of sites but of worthy sites, identifying a
handful of them - what fits on one branch of the
tree - seems arbitrary and insufficient. We go from
saying, "Thank you, Yahoo, for taking a good but
necessarily imperfect cut at finding the sites worth
looking at on this topic," to saying, "Whoa, Yahoo
and other such filtering entities! Why did you pick
these twenty out of the thousand sites worth looking
at? Who put you in charge?" In fact, Yahoo has de-
emphasized its navigational tree over the past few
years. Filtering goes from friendly to capricious
when the top of the value pyramid gets big enough to
house not just the Pharaoh but everyone the Pharaoh
ever saw.

The last time information hit a new level of
abundance, we introduced a new criterion into
searching. In the 1980s, we had two: Precision
measured whether a search engine turned up results
irrelevant to the query, and recall measured whether
the engine missed relevant pages. Then, in the '90s,
an engine that did well with both precision and
recall could still deliver too many results, so
relevancy became a third criterion: Did the engine
list the most relevant pages first, or did you have
to page through 130,000 precisely recalled results
to find the one page that answered your question?
Search engines got remarkably good remarkably
quickly at providing relevant results.

But now that we have an abundance of worthiness, we
need another criterion. Perhaps we should take the
word popularized by del.icio.us and flickr.com:
Interestingness. Interesting pages are the ones that
your friends would have emailed you about because
they know your tastes, interests and sense of humor.
Within the set of search results that are precise,
recall-ful and relevant, we want to see the
interesting ones first.

Maybe search engines can do this algorithmically, or
maybe they have to intersect with social networks
because "I think you'll like this" is as personal a
statement as, "Gosh, you've really lost a lot of
hair since the last time I saw you." Send your
friends a series of emails recommending stupid sites
and your friends not only will stop reading your
email, they'll start questioning their friendship.
Filtering is an intimate act.

In an age of an abundance of worthiness, when there
are 1,000 good pages relevant to your query about
bird watching, we need to take the next evolutionary
step beyond precision, recall and relevancy.

BOOK STUFF (in 3 parts)

1. Why Finishing a Book Sucks

I decided to go the traditional publishing route
with "Everything Is Miscellaneous" because when it
comes to lifetime ambitions, I'm a traditionalist.
Rail as I might about the mainstream media, I would
still kill a minor celebrity (please let it be Paris
Hilton!) to get published in The New Yorker. Also,
and not incidentally, us Volvo-driving, Birkenstock-
wearing East Coast liberals have to put  tofu and
kelp on the table, you know.

So, given that my book will be repurposing trees,
here's why it sucks to finish one:

From now until pub date, I will watch other people
have and publish the ideas in the book.

From now until pub date, I get to find out about all
the mistakes in the book.

From now until pub date, the book becomes a staler
and less adequate representation of what I think.

From now until pub date, I get to neurotically
project its abject failure and my public

After three years of working on the book, I now wake
up with nothing in particular to write.

First my publisher's marketing department and then
anyone who reads it gets to have an opinion about
what I meant.

Now when someone asks me what the book's about, I
really should have an answer.

2. EverythingIsMiscellaneous.com

I have a beta of the book's web site up at
http://www.everythingIsMiscellaneous.com (or
http://www.EImisc.com, to keep your tunnels from
getting all carpal). It's genuinely beta, as you'll
see if you go there.

Send me your suggestions. Be gentle.

3. The Word Cloud

| WORD WORK WORLD YEARS                       |

This is a "word cloud" that expresses the words most
commonly used in Everything Is Miscellaneous,
excluding common words such as "the." The font size
of the word indicates its relative frequency - but
for that you'll have to go to the online version of
this newsletter. Tag clouds work the same way,
except, of course, for tags.

You can create your own word cloud for an online
page at www.SnapShirts.com. But, frankly, the
graphic that site generates is ugly. So I wrote my
own word clouder (Windows only). If you're a Visual
Basic sort of person, I'll be happy to send you a
copy so long as you don't expect it to actually work.


In the online version of JOHO, there's a long-ish
article about BioMed Central[1], a commercial
publisher of peer-reviewed scientific research that
permits open (= free) access to all of its content.
In so doing, it happens to exemplify a whole bunch
of trends, many of which are associated with "Web



Why are so few movies any good? I don't mean why do
so few make money. I mean, why do most of them suck?
Why are they incompetently written, directed and/or
edited? After all, not that many are made every
year, and they're quite expensive, so one would
think there would be enough competent creators that
a high percentage would be good of their kind. You
could be assured that if it's a romantic comedy,
it's a good romantic comedy, and if it's an action
movie, it's a good action movie.

But, generally they're not. Romantic comedies are
usually predictable and not very funny. Action
movies are usually directed and edited so badly that
you can't tell who's clubbing whom and which car is
outracing which car. Why are the movies themselves
so often so bad?

Of course, writing, directing and editing may be
harder than I think. Or maybe there are systemic
issues. But good TV series - from the US version of
The Office to House to Dexter to The Sopranos - are
able to turn out high quality products week after
week with a variety of writers and directors. And
they're made under far worse time pressure. Why are
movies so much more inconsistent? Why are movies so
often so bad?


On a barely related topic: Having watched more than
my share of romantic comedies on planes - and I mean
watched, not heard - I want to know why the
reconciliation that ends so many of them occurs in
public spaces such as airports, train stations, and
on the steps of public buildings. These are the very
places that inhibit intimacy. Is that why?


Changes in the grammar of movies happen rarely, and
often in a burst.

        We went from needing a visual transition to
        change scenes to accepting a direct cut
        between them. Dissolves now seem old-
        fashioned. Star wipe anyone?

        Orson Welles is credited with fully breaking
        theater's hold on how the camera is used,
        swooping it through scenes the way no
        physical observer could.

        I remember being thrown off by Mike Nichol's
        use of sound in The Graduate: You'd hear the
        opening of the next scene before the visuals
        changed. Now it's a common technique.

We're ready for another change.

And not just the change in content already happening
due to our new ability to potray any imaginable
visual image via digital construction. JarJar Binx-
ing films is not the Big Change digital allows.
Rather, the going digital of movies lets them adopt
a grammar at least as radical as Welles' turning
cameras into G-d's eyes.

I don't know what that grammar will be. I'm more or
less the opposite of an innovator in film: I mainly
go to the movies for the popcorn. But, I bet that
(i) the new grammar will give us more information,
and (ii) at first it will seem jumbled, gimmicky and
intrusive, but then it will be as invisible as a
reaction shot or a crane shot. Maybe it'll be a
change in the expectation that audiences will sit
quietly through a movie. (Judging from our local
theaters, that change is well underway.)

| COOL TOOL                                   |
|                                             |
| I always look forward to the latest         |
| in the "Hacks" series [1] from O'Reilly     |
| Media. Each is packed with tips and tricks  |
| to help you get the most out of some piece  |
| of technology. Blackberry Hacks, e.g.,      |
| has made my Blackberry far more usable.     |
| Some in the series are aimed at             |
| developers, and I haven't looked at some of |
| the odder titles, such as Mind Hacks and    |
| Baseball Hacks, but the application ones    |
| have been well worth the cover price.       |
| http://www.oreilly.com/store/series/hacks.html
| WHAT I'M PLAYING                            |
|                                             |
| DreamFall: The Longest Journey [1] is a     |
| follow-up to the previous Longest Journey   |
| adventure, which I played many years ago    |
| with one of our children. He now claims to  |
| be too old to sit on my lap - it's so cute  |
| to see a 16 year old act all grown up! -    |
| so I'm playing it myself. And so far, it's  |
| been pretty good. On the other hand, at     |
| this point Indigo Prophecy was also good,   |
| and then in its final third it became the   |
| stupidest game since Pick-Up Sticks: Binge  |
| Drinking Edition. DreamFall's graphics are  |
| good, the UI is fairly intuitive, and the   |
| voice acting is above average. The story    |
| is better than in many adventures,          |
| although I wouldn't read a book with this   |
| plot. The puzzles are generally solvable    |
| (and there's an online walkthrough [2] when |
| they're not). There's been a tiny bit of    |
| button-mashing fighting, which I totally    |
| do not enjoy because I have developed the   |
| reflexes of a 56-year-old. But, I've been   |
| enjoying the game.                          |
|                                             |
| Since writing that, I've finished it and    |
| also pretty much completed Devastation      |
| Zone Troopers [3]. It's an old-fashioned 3D,|
| third person shooter that feels more        |
| arcade-y than Doom-ish, but it's fun. And   |
| it comes from a small games publisher -     |
| Manifesto [4] - who only charges $20.       |
|                                             |
| [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreamfall  |
| [2] http://www.gameboomers.com/wtcheats/pcDd/dreamfall.htm
| [3] http://www.manifestogames.com/devastationzonetroopers
| [4] http://www.manifestogames.com/          |


Over at my blog (www.JohoTheBlog.com), for no
particular reason, I've been running Daily Open-
Ended Puzzles. Except not every day. Some of them
are just excuses for me to be dumb in public ("Why
don't microwaves have heat settings the way toaster
ovens do?") and others are so vague as to be
meaningless ("What would it take to make a bee
happy?"...the answer to which is, I believe, "100 million years of
evolution"). But, if you like the Bogus contest-and
judging from the response over the years, I would
say that none of you do-you should check for DOEPs
on my blog.

So, instead of just trying to fob you off onto the
DOEPS, here's this issue's Bogus Contest: Got any
DOEPs I can use?


JOHO is a free, independent newsletter written and
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Dr. Weinberger is represented by a fiercely
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notice constitutes fair warning.

The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization is a
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