Archive for October, 2006

The Post-Modern Dialog, Abridged.

Posted October 31st, 2006 by Talin

Modernism: There are no forbidden questions.
Postmodernism: Why?

Democracy and Faith in Institutions

Posted October 23rd, 2006 by Talin

Here’s what bugs me: It isn’t just Iraq that’s in a mess. Democracy itself, as an institution has suffered some serious body blows in the last 5 years, and that worries me more than even terrorists.

Social institutions only work if people believe in them. And what we’ve seen over the last 5 years is an object lesson in the impotence and failures of democracy.

I’m not an “I-told-you-so”-er, but I’ve said along that you can’t just wave your arms and say “Domini, Domini, Domini, you’re all living in a democracy now.” It takes many years to build up the kind of faith that is required for these things to work. America didn’t just become a democracy on the day that the Constitution was signed – we had over 200 years of colonial governmental traditions to draw upon and believe in.

It isn’t enough simply to believe in the power of democracy as an abstract concept – you need to have faith that when things start to go wrong, your society will continue to hold together, and not degenerate into civil war.

For one thing, you need a loyal opposition. You need to believe in your heart of hearts that the other side, the people you despise, will at least have the courtesy to talk things out, and not just storm the parliament building with guns when they don’t get their way. Otherwise, what’s the point of even participating? Why not just get your own guns and storm the building first before they get there?

You need to believe that the game is fair – that people aren’t rigging the system, gerrymandering you into irrelevance or stealing your vote.

You need to believe that the people you elect are more than just incompetent, selfish boobs interested solely in lining their own pockets. That you have a real choice, not just a contrived and trivial one between lesser evil and mediocre evil.

Instead, we’ve seen – both at home and abroad – a cascade of examples that seem almost designed to rob people of their faith. To dispirit and destroy their belief that they truly have the power to change things.

Politics is an area where success breeds success, and failure breeds failure. What I worry about is whether other potential proto-democracies are going to look at the Iraq example and maybe think twice about this whole democracy thing. And I worry that the people here will also get dispirited, although not for quite the same reasons.

We (the Enlightenment and its descendants) took power away from the oligarchs because we showed that our way worked – and worked better. The only way the oligarchs can ever get their power back is to somehow demonstrate that it doesn’t work so well after all. And the way to do this is to take the tool that we created and misuse it.

You see, like the free market, democracy is not a natural law – it is a machine, constructed by humans, to solve a certain set of problems. It is no more a natural law than Robert’s Rules of Order. But that machine only works if you give it the correct environment – it’s source of power is emotional investment of the citizenry within in, an investment that they will only give so long as they perceive it to be capable of solving their problems.

Thus, the way to destroy democracy and its institutions is to attempt to apply them in contexts in which they will surely fail.

I’m tired of the word ‘bipartisan’

Posted October 20th, 2006 by Talin

Kind of reminds me of “separate but equal” (which is neither separate, nor equal, but that’s another rant.) Bipartisan is kind of like those old (bad) sitcoms where the two housemates, unable to resolve their differences, paint a big white line down the center of the apartment and insist that each other stay on “their side”. (And then spend the rest of the episiode predictably arguing about what belongs on their side, or what the exceptions should be, and so on.)

So I don’t see “bipartisan” as a compliment – how about “non-partisan”, or even better “unified”?

What, you don’t have an RSS reader?

Posted October 16th, 2006 by Talin

Two words: Google Reader.

These days, I pretty much ignore any blog that doesn’t have an RSS or Atom feed. Who wants to spend 20 minutes every day checking all their favorite web sites to see which ones have updated?

Up to this point, I’ve been using Safari (yes, the web browser that comes with OS X) as my preferred RSS reader – it beats the pants off of Firefox 2.0. However, it looks like the newly redesigned Google Reader may be the new champion – its dirt simple to use, and organizes my feeds in exactly the way I like them. Specifically – I want to see a summary of the latest stories in a single page, not just the titles. I want to read the stories continuously down the page, not open a separate page for each story. And so on.

Highly recommended.


Posted October 14th, 2006 by Talin

Old idea, new name: Podcasting combined with GPS.

When I visited Edinburgh Castle, you could rent these small audio players that would narrate to you as you wandered about the grounds, explaining the history and various stories behind the specific location where you were. (Nothing sophisticated here – just a small sign in each room showing what number to punch on the audio player.)

What if, however, we could have something similar that works everywhere, all the time? You go out hiking on a trail, and listen to stories told by others who have walked that trail before.

A lot of folks have thought about the idea of a GPS-indexed ‘net. However, they tend to get bogged down in things like “the spam problem” and so on.

Podcasting provides a user experience model which fits naturally with this idea. Podcasts aren’t just a big soup of audio files, they are organized into “feeds”, each feed being (ultimately) controlled by a person and backed by their reputation (even if the feed is an aggregate of the work of multiple commentators.) Moreover, because feeds are in competition with each other for mind share, there is competitive pressure not to degrade the listening experience, which is why there aren’t very many adverts in podcasts.

Secondly, as an auditory rather than a visual experience, podcasts require less attention to be taken away from the visal experience of travelling.

A location-based podcast would, of course, have to be a lot ‘denser’ in terms of number of stories than a regular “global” cast. The GPS data serves primarily as a filter, removing entries that don’t match the users current location. This means that instead of getting an RSS feed of all of the stories, I only get the .001% of stories that happend to coincide with my current location.

The solution is a compilation cast – i.e. I select a feed based on the reputation of an editor, who combines many casts into a single aggregate feed. This combined feed will be dense enough so that at any given location, the chances of finding a matching story are good.

The thing we want to avoid is to simply grab all feeds for a given location, unfiltered. Without someone’s reputation in the loop, there’s no competition between stories, which means that the quality will rapidly degrade and spam will dominate.

Thesaurus.com sucks

Posted October 13th, 2006 by Talin

I’m just stunned at how bad of a thesaurus Thesaurus.com is. Actually, most of the online thesaurii are pretty awful, however Thesaurus.com is awful in its own way.

Thesaurus.com has a lot of content, but it’s not comprehensive. You look up a word and you get hundreds of results (many of which have absolutely nothing to do with the word you are searching for), but at the same time, whole classes of meanings are just — missing.

For example – yesterday I wanted to find a synonym for the word ‘sharing’, in the sense of a common interest or attribute, such as “sharing a love of great films”, or joint ownership of a bank acount. Well, Thesaurus.com has no such notion – instead, it only lists “sharing” as a syonym of “dividing” or “apportioning” and a few other similar synonym, all of which seem centered around the concept of partitioning of a ‘rival good’, which is not what I am looking for. And this is not the first time I’ve had this experience.

Anyone know of a really good thesaurus out there? I’ve tried a bunch.