Linguists and journalists

Today’s earth-shattering revelation is the similarity between journalists and comparative linguists. The both bug an assortment of subject experts, then string together garbled misinterpretations of the responses, and publish to acclaim from the ignorant.

In a less huffy mood, I might have some good things to say about interdisciplinarity and spreading information.

Uncertainty, confusion and deniability

Iranian protesters have a nice method to escape prosecution: they encourage people to do things which might, or might not, be protests. For example , they might call for people to drive into the city centre. The protest succeeds if the traffic is obviously heavier than usual, but the police can’t sift the dissidents from the commuters.

I’m wondering what other systems – for protest, or for anything else – do, or could, use the same kind of deniability system. It’s probably dealt with smewhere in the security or politics literature, btu of course I have no idea where.


Yes, I do already have a webpage, and a livejournal, and I’m starting a politics group-blog elsewhere, and a blosxom private blog/note-collection, and have strewn plenty of debris elsewhere on the net. Why another one?

  1. because I want somewhere to write about social software and other technology without boring everyone else. Livejournal is for friends, tran is for hacks, blosxom is for me and me alone.
  2. To respond to other blogs – to ‘participate in the conversation’, as the jargon du jour would put it. To have somewhere I can trackback to posts, without baffling all comers
  3. To stop writing off-topic comments. I keep writing comments on other people’s blogs that are only tangentially connected to the original post. It isn’t fair on them to keep begging forgiveness for going off on detours. Now I can digress on my own time.

So that’s the plan. I’m sure it won’t work out as neatly as all that. Either this blog will die, or it will go somewhere I didn’t expect it to. That’s life.

From notes to books

Writing words is easy. Writing books, or writing essays, is hard. Steven Johnson writes about how he hops that gap by using software that helps him plagiarise his research notes when he’s writing essays. (via Joho)

A lot of good things over the past decade have worked on lowering the barriers – practical, financial, social – between rough and polished. Blogs let you publish thoughts that are too lightweight to do anything else with. National Novel Writing Month forces participants to focus on quantity rather than quality. And the internet itself removes most of the barriers (money, minimum audience, and the approval of others) that stop people publishing on paper. Each one has its own angle on quality vs. quantity:

  1. The NaNoWriMo lesson:

    Writing is a good thing in itself, even if nobody reads it
  2. The blog lesson:

    Niche audiences can justify anything
  3. The internet lesson:

    Write it, release it, and when someone needs it they’ll find it

Johnson (who updates his argument here and here) is talking about a fourth lesson:

  1. The Johnson lesson:

    Write it as it comes; you’ll find a use for it later

That makes sense. Some notes just aren’t ready to do anything with, no matter how far you can lower inhibitions by blogging, or by putting out essays as food for google. Over the past year, my computer has gathered 120,000 words of notes. Blosxom lets me give them some minimal ordering and viewability, but it’s still a pretty dire state. And yet, I can often chain a few of them together into something worth reading.

Which is where the software Johnson mentions comes in:

Consider how I used the tool in writing my last book, which revolved around the latest developments in brain science. I would write a paragraph that addressed the human brain’s remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I’d then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask it to find other, similar passages in my archive. Instantly, a list of quotes would be returned: some on the neural architecture that triggers facial expressions, others on the evolutionary history of the smile, still others that dealt with the expressiveness of our near relatives, the chimpanzees. Invariably, one or two of these would trigger a new association in my head — I’d forgotten about the chimpanzee connection — and I’d select that quote, and ask the software to find a new batch of documents similar to it. Before long a larger idea had taken shape in my head, built out of the trail of associations the machine had assembled for me.

More to follow later on exactly what I’d like to see this kind of software do. For now, I’ll stick with a big

I like it!

Google sanskit

Google Sanskrit. The mind boggles.

It turns out there’s also a latin version.

Will be at the Calling later; see some of you there.

Weinberger is a demi-god

An occasional fantasy of mine for the past few years has been that one day I’ll write a ‘history of the index’ as a coffee table book. It’d probably be unreadable, given that one end would have to be Aristotle, and the other end would have to be some kind of bleeding-edge computer science.

So I’m really, really excited that David Weinberger looks set to do it instead. If you can survive the rough transcript, this talk, from the ‘webcred’ conference in Boston last night, is fascinating, although a lot of it is a rehash of a wonderful speech he gave to the Library of Congress in November.

Basically, David (an internet pundit/blogger with an academic philosophy background) thinks that we make too much use of systems of hierarchical classification (X is a kind of Y, and Y is a subclass of Z, ad infinitum), which he traces back to Aristotle. That can be useful because of the constraints of the physical world: you can only put a book on one shelf in a library. But it isn’t ideal: a non-expert won’t know whether to look for dolphins under ‘mammals’ or ‘aquatic animals’.

You can try to work around those constrains (in a library, for example, by building card catalogues with lots of cross-referencing). But it’s expensive and time-consuming, and won’t work well unless you have an army of expert librarians who also understand the subject matter and the minds of their readers. And that won’t happen often.

The buzzword of the week is ‘folksonomies’: ‘folk taxonomies’, created when people tag information with keywords on sites like or flickr. The general trend- that things can be catalogued multiple times by an assortment of non-expert users, with their descriptions being automatically combined – is a lot wider than the few sites that are self-consciously plugging themselves as folksonomies. And it is one way out of the problems of standard subject classifications.

Which is all incredibly exciting. But, as always, the bubble is getting out of control, and not many people seem to realise they’re reinventing the wheel. Or at least, that they’re putting into practice a lot of what academics have been fantasising about for decades (centuries?). When I’ve mentioned these things to a couple of (continental) philosopher types, they’ve excitedly pushed me at Deleuze, and Foucault, and ideas of classification as violence. And there are plenty more academics, in all kinds of disciplines, thinking along parallel lines. Which is all very well, as long as you don’t have to read all their books yourself.

And you won’t, if Weinberger gets his book deal. Because he’s got one foot in the academic camp, and the other in the techy/blogger camp, and if he gets his book deal he should be able to knock some heads together, and help us think about libraries and the internet together. Which is awesome.

The antidote to seriousness

And to make up for that last post, here’s a meme:

Scan my interest list and pick out the one that seems the most odd to you.

I’ll explain it.

Then you post this in your journal so other people can ask you about your interests

A word we all need


, v. To move a tall, flat bottomed object (such as a bookshelf) by swiveling it alternatively on its corners in a “walking” fashion.

I damaged the linoleum while aku-akuing the cabinet across the kitchen.

Now isn’t that the most useful word ever? It’s joining my list of favourites, along with ‘boustrophedonically’ (writing alternately left to right and right to left, ‘like an ox turning’), ‘apophenia (‘the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena’), and pretty much the entire contents of The Meaning of Liff.

I also have a soft spot for ‘incunabula’ (early printed books, generally those produced before 1500), for entirely the wrong reasons. When I first came across it, I thought it was pronounced ‘In-Kuna-Bula’, and in my mind it sounded as if it should be a kind of war-chant. So then I start imagining thousands of bespectacled librarians on a ridge, facing off against the Zulus at Rorke’s Drift…


I’m falling in love with the idea of Books we Like. If you see my list of recommendations growing too fast over the next few days, please tell me to get back to work. Found out about it from danah’s blog, which is excellent, and something you should all be reading. Especially if you’re interested in technology and social capital (*ahem*).

Some less wonderful things about it behind the cut. Not really worth reading, I just wanted somewhere to dump it all.

» Read the rest of this entry «

Flashy but useless

Why is it that so many academics try to show off how clever they are at the expense of their readers? There is

no excuse

for peppering your text with untranslated extracts from obscure languages. The one I’m reading now has not just french, german, latin and greek, but also hebrew and ge’ez. The latter, which I hadn’t even


of until last week, is ancient ethiopian, and is barely known by anyone outside Ethiopia. So how on earth does the author think he’s helping anyone by printing unintelligeable sentences on every page? Answer: he probably doesn’t: he doesn’t care about who’s going to read it, he just wants to show off how smart he is to his publishers and to anyone who’s impressed by strange-looking squiggles. And apparently nobody, on the whole route from lectures to articles to publishing the book, stopped him and pointed out that the purpose of academic publishing is to spread information, not to wank over how many languages you know.

Interestingly, he translates passages in Arabic. I wonder why: does he not speak the language himself, or has he made some deluded calculation that everyone speaks hebrew and ge’ez, but nobody speaks Arabic? Grrr….

Update: Spanish and Italian too.