The “Insert Exotic Cause du Jour” Movement

A great expose on the way thatself-righteous activists blunder around the globe taking on causes to get one over on youand causing only damage to the people they profess to care about. The technique of selecting foreign causes works especially well for those activists and celebrities desperate to be perceived as being more erudite and worldly than the average prole. Since the bulk of Americans know little to nothing about Tibet, Richard Gere has an incredibly low bar to attain to pretend to be very learned on the subject. So for the cost of a plane ticket and a photo-op, he can remain mostly ignorant, learn next to nothing, and still get the benefits of appearing to be a wise protector of something that most proletariat see as exotic and ?beyond them?. This is the dynamic of the pasty Canadian students inexplicably protesting against ?opression? of falun dafa in Tiananmen Square, or Sean Penn buying a plane ticket to Bagdhad, or the Iowa coed who gets involvedin the ?Free Mumia? movement. Without saying wether or not any of these causes have any merit, I think it is safe to say that many of the people who adopt these causes are completely unaware of their own painful ignorance about the subject at hand and in fact are quite proud of their mastery of the subject in comparison to the typical ignorant prole.

Grothendiek’s Solitude

I am looking forward to reading the upcoming bio ofGrothendiek. Grothendiek’s autobiographical notes are deeply human; more like an introspection diary ala ‘Markings’ than a narrative. For example, his comments on independent thinking:

?These years of isolation laid the foundation for a faith that has never been shaken – neither by the discovery (arriving in Paris at the age of 20), of the full extent of my ignorance and the immensity of what I would be obliged to learn; nor (20 years later) by the turbulent events surrounding my final departure …?

?By this I mean to say: to reach out in my own way to the things I wished to learn, rather than relying on the notions of the consensus, overt or tacit, coming from a more or less extended clan of which I found myself a member, or which for any other reason laid claim to be taken as an authority.?

?… They’ve all done things, often beautiful things, in a context that was already set out before them, which they had no inclination to disturb. Without being aware of it, they’ve remained prisoners of those invisible and despotic circles which delimit the universe of a certain milieu in a given era. To have broken these bounds they would have had to rediscover in themselves that capability which was their birth-right, as it was mine: the capacity to be alone.?


This year’s Economics Nobel Laureate may just have the explanation why cutting taxes could discourage open source development.

Neurotransmitters for the Global Mind

In keeping with yesterday’s theme, I’ll present another of my favorite metaphors for the semantic web: ?Neurotransmitters for the Global Mind?. You see, each new advance in technology makes it easier for humans to communicate amongst ourselves. And if you think of people as being individual neurons, and our modes of communication as the neurotransmitters that lubricate the mind and make neuron-neuron communication possible, you will see what I mean by gloabal mind. First humans developed language, then written language, then the printing press, then the WWW. At each stage, we greatly increase the ability of nodes to intercommunicate, and leads to overall more intelligent societies. So I’ve always thought of communications avances as sort of the lubricant to a smoothly-running global mind.

Now, history would seem to show an upward trend here. So far (with the exception of perhaps the burning of the library at Alexandria), each generation has proven that there could be ever more connectedness achieved. But when I hear William Loughborough talk about ?Everything/Everyone/Always Connected?, I can’t help think of what happens when we have excess neurotransmitters flowing around. Let’s hope it’s a good trip and not a bad one! 🙂

The Committee of Gossips

Scoble just sent me a message about this new Channel 9 video, showing JP Stewart’s car mods. It’s the same hacker spirit directed into hand-coding BIOSes for gaming console mod chips, or writing bittorrent trackers, or any number of other things that are exciting despite (and maybe because) you can’t really make money doing them. It’s the spirit that used to be directed toward Linux, and Fido net, and all of those other things we used to obsess upon before they became profitable.

It also reminded me that I wanted to talk about the ?committee of gossips?, another way of looking at the semantic web. Think of a large apartment complex with a suitable number of retirees who sit around playing bridge or mahjong all day. Maybe the men sit on the park benches, but the old women like to watch everything that goes on. Nothing escapes their attention, and everything that happens is transmitted among the ?committee of gossips? in clucks and whispers at lightning speed. You might think that you have some privacy, but hovering just out of sight, always watching, arethe ladies of the committee. These old women know that the whole complex would descend into a downward spiral of disrepair and depravity without their watchful eyes and ears, so they take their job of gossipping with a sense of duty that most mortals cannot comprehend.So when something happens that affects the community, everyone knows about it.

This is really what the semantic web is about. Everyone can become a spy for everyone else. With ubiquitous computing, with ubiquitous recording devices, you can ?gossip? more quickly and effortlessly than ever before. You can gossip with more people, even with people who you’ve never met. And you can do it automatically.

And there is no reason to stop there. I want my car to gossip with your car. When your car hits a pothole, I want it to automatically send out some clucks and whispers to all of the other cars in the area; so that when I’m driving through the area, my car will know ?a few other cars told me there is a pothole here, I should slow down.? Turn everything into a spy for everything else.

Windows “Brand” and Blogs

When I first read Ries’ ?22 Immutable Laws of Marketing?, I remember comparing it to Microsoft’s own experience of marketing and wondering, ?if Microsoft violates so many of these laws, why are we so successful?? Microsoft has a long history of attempting to ?extend? the ?Windows Brand? into other categories, one of the more severe violations of immutable law. People involved with enterprise sales at Microsoft will have anecdotes about overcoming customer concerns about stability in the Windows Server (?if NT is completely different codefrom Windows 95, and it doesn’t crash, then why do you call it ‘Windows’?). And the examples of renaming ?Windows CE? to ?Pocket PC?, or launching ?Xbox? instead of ?Windows Gaming Console? convinced me that Ries was correct. I recall a recent decision to rename ?Mira? to ?Windows CE for Smart Displays?; so the urge toward brand extension has not been extinguished.

I also read ?Positioning?, and ?22 Immutable Laws of Branding? when they came out; both were excellent, and provided many intuitions about things I observed. Over the years, I’ve often found myself referring to these books in conversation, or holding imaginary debates with the authors when thinking about particular marketing challenges (not that I get paid to think about marketing, but…).

So reading the blogs, I see thatJohn Porcaro asked Laura Ries her for some of her thoughts on Microsoft and branding. The answers were just as interesting as I would have expected. Al Ries responded with a comment on John’s blog, and then the conversation continued over on Brand Mantra, where Jennifer Rice asked Laura the ultimate question: ?If Microsoft so flagrantly abuses brand extension…? How cool is this? Laura and Al Ries are having a conversation about a bunch of the issues that I’ve wondered about, and it’s not even in my imagination.

Of course, I’ve developed some of my own opinions about that specific question: why Microsoft sometimes gets away with seeming violations of the immutable laws of branding. As Luigi Pirandello in ?Six Characters in Search of an Author? says, ?Some things, no matter how improbable they may seem, require no explanation; because they are.? But we make up excuses anyway. My theory is that ?brand extension? has sometimes worked (or at least avoided punishment) simply because some of the other immutable laws were applied so effectively. The simple mission of ?A computer on every desktop, running Microsoft Software? was crisp and clean enough that Microsoft became equated in people’s minds with ?the software that runs on my computer?. It’s what people thought of the company, because it’s all the company focused on, like a laser beam.This period inMicrosoft historyof such single-minded mission is a case study from ?Built to Last?. As the authors have pointed out, having a clear, unambiguous mission fora brandgoes a long way toward developing a clear unambiguous mapping between brand and value in the customers’ minds. Even once the original mission had been largely achieved, I can recall several instances where Steve Ballmer communicated unambiguous goals for a particular brand. For example,?I want Office to bethe single must-have piece of software that atypical knowledge worker can’t live without. Ifshe can get her work done on a typical day without ever having to leavethe Office suite, we’ve succeeded?.This is audacious, but simple. This issomething the whole team canfocus on like a laser beam. Although people like to point to things like Microsoft?leveraging? market share, or ?embracing and extending? others’ innovations, I think focus on such crisp missions more than anything else is the success factor that explains the initiatives that have succeeded.


The Nobel Prize committee labored long and hard to select candidates who would not have a political axe to grind and would not give the impression that the Nobel Committee favored one candidate or another. Edward Prescott was considered to be one such candidate, and earned the Nobel Prize in Economics. Then, without skipping a beat, he heartily endorsed Bush’s tax cuts, saying that the tax cuts should have been even bigger. Tyler Cowen reminds us that spending is the true measure of taxation, however, and many ?shrill? economics professors disagree with the Nobel Laureate.

Where XML Goes Astray

Derek Denny-Brown quite possibly knows more about implementing the XML specs than any other human being who has ever lived. Today he gives you an overview of some of the biggest issues which are lurking in the shadows for those who attempt to implement these specs. Reading it gives me flashbacks to many instances over the past years where, after having Derek patiently explain and re-explain, realization dawned. ?If only namespaces had been spec’d a tiny bit differently!?, or ?WTF were they thinking when they did THAT with whitespace??, or ?Egads! Qnames in content are a MESS, I hope nobody EVER uses them!?.

Now, this is not to say that XML is a bad spec. In fact, I think that XML core is one of the best, most implementable specs I’ve ever seen. But it just shows that no spec is perfect, and if you go deep enough, you find all sorts of shadowy corners that you never would have expected. Derek’s post is just the tip of the iceberg, but you’ll find it very interesting.

Web 2.0

OK, I’ll admit that I found the whole idea of ?Web 2.0? to be somewhat silly, and perhaps wishful thinking for the bubble days of Wired magazine. But with each passing day of reports from Zawodny, I’ve slowly changed my attitude, and I am now ready to declare that Web 2.0 is even cooler than Wired ever was!

I’m a very practical person, and I don’t see a lot of value when self-professed ?idea people? get together to stroke one another’s egos in an incestuousecho chamber. And Web 2.0 conferencecertainly had some of the usual suspects. But there along with the normal ?stupid but curiously popular? ideas were many very good ideas. Tons of real-world experience. Practical people. Exciting visions that you can actually believe in!

I don’t believe that I’ve ever gotten so much out of a conference, and I wasn’t even there. They need to invite Zawodny back every year, even if only to take notes.

The Meta Model

My brother has recently been building sensors that can discriminate odors such as chemical weapons, based on the work of the winner of this year’s nobel prize in medicine. The neural model is proving to be a big step forward in understanding how weform representations ofthe world, more suitable than the traditional symbolic approach for many things. Since I’ve read ?Conceptual Spaces?, I’ve become convinced that there is another explanation of representation which works for some of the cases where neural and symbolic don’t work very well.

The fact that there are (at least) three different ways of usefully representing our reality should not imply that the three are mutually exclusive. But neither should we assume that they are always stacked atop one another in a dependency chain (i.e. neural feeds conceptual which feeds symbolic).

Now, to be sure, stimulus from the outside world goes through multiple layers of translation before we can operate cognitively on the representations. As Korzybski said, and Perls internalized as Gestalt,?the map is not the territory?.It is interesting that people often mistake their perceptions for reality, but this split is ultimately common sense, and wasunderstood to exist long before Korzybski.

But agreeing that there are translation layers between reality and the thoughts we hold in our mind is not the same as agreeing what those layers are. I think that any taxonomies of these internal layers are necessarily fictions, useful only for particular purposes. In other words, the act of describing the translation layers is an act of inventing new terms and assigning definitions, and attempting to explain experience in those invented terms. For example, the Catholics used terms like ‘percept’, ‘phantasm’. And psychologists use, ‘conscious’, ‘subconscious’, or ‘ego’, ‘superego’, ‘id’. Chomsky has ‘phonemes’, ‘words’, ‘phrases’.

You can kind of hook some of these things together; for example, you could say neural–>concept formation–>symbolic–>Chomsky’s grammar, and so on. But trying to reconcile all of these meta-models is like playing with a lego set from hell. They are all fictions in the first place, and humans inventing stories to explain away consciousness do not have the benefit of omniscient coordination to make sure the stories are consistent with one another. I also think it’s dangerous to assume that any of these models is ?true? just because it’s useful. For example, it is only recently that science has proven that the brain is capable of recognizing something and triggering intensely complex reactions without ever becoming conscious of that thing. In other words, it’s false to assume that all complex patterns must be translated all the way to the symbolic (or even conceptual) level to be perceived by the brain. This is true for smells, but also for other sense modalities. Now, this might seem like common sense, but I think that it took us so long to acknowledge this in part because we had a centuries-old bias toward equating symbolic processing with ?thinking?. If we’ve convinced ourselves that something is not possible, we don’t even bother to test for it. I wonder how many other interesting discoveries are being hindered because we insist on viewing reality through the lens of terms like ?ego?, ?id?; which however useful they may be, were invented by us to serve us, not enslave us.


Arnold Kling discusses the need for savings, while Tyler Cowen discusses the economics of Fannie Mae. Jennifer Rice discusses the economics of bundling Microsoft products.