Wednesday, October 26, 2011


I had hoped to flex my newly awakened blogging skills with something light.

Instead we have the sight of police chucking tear gas into protestors at #occupyoakland.

That is, of course, the hashtag used to follow the news with twitter (it seems that more traditional media sources, acting on police advice, went home early)

Oh, that sounds like a conspiracy. Well, I suppose it is, and I'm as much of a sucker for the outlandish theory as the next man.

I also possess a certain forensic streak as well and I became a little puzzled with another 'conspiracy'; that none of the 'occupy' tags were trending. This has been discussed for a while back and forth, with no clear conclusion being reached.

I went looking.

First off, I tried simply counting the number of tweets associated with #ows and the death of Steve Jobs (#ThanksSteve was very prominent at the time) They seemed to be appearing at comparable rates. However, Twitter's trending algorithm isn't just a question of total tweets; it tries to show people what's hot and what isn't. So, there may be some reason why ows wasn't trending? Possibly it had saturated.

It turns out that there a number of sites that plot trends for a given set of tweets over time. Most are geared to individuals trying to find out how they're doing.

There is one, however, allows you to select hashtags. That is Trendistic. Using it to compare #ows with #ThanksSteve shows that the latter was a clear spike, while 'ows' was an ongoing grumble (with spikes). OK, so maybe 'ows' doesn't trend, but it's persistent.

Then came news of tear gas in downtown Oakland...

Again, no 'OccupyOakland' appeared in the trending list. However, what *was* appearing was 'Oakland PD' and 'OPD' (Oakland Police Department?)

What is the Oakland PD doing that doesn't involve OccupyOakland?

Going back to Trendistic now revealed something *very* interesting.

Here's a plot of that trending 'Occupy PD':

Occupy PD Trending... at 0.18%.

There's a respectable spike there. But have a look at the column on the right. Do you see 'OccupyOakland' displayed at the top? I do (I also see ows, shown less prominently)

So, here's the trend for 'OccupyOakland' as the dawn breaks over the Bay Area.

OccupyOakland Not Trending... at 0.81%.

Whoa! That is a spike that is over 5 times the size as 'Oakland PD'

This seems like a case of 'same data, different conclusions'.

Twitter has been a mainstay of a lot of popular movements, and it seems churlish, even ungrateful, to point this out.

But, dear @Twitter, I think you need to respond to this, and either fix your algorithms, or list the tags you are 'demoting' as well as 'promoting'.

Update: Twitter did recently point to a fairly detailed account of how tags trend here. As I said earlier, this may account for #ows, but #OccupyOakland fits the profile, and Trendistic lists it!


Friday, October 21, 2011

Hello Blogger My Old Friend

Or... Why I Write
If this is a story then, in the traditional sense, it is an incomplete one. It certainly has a beginning, and a developing structure that leads to a middle. I have yet to think of an ending, though.

Why I Started
I started writing this blog about 7(!) years ago. I did so as a form of escape. I felt isolated, both socially and professionally and, while it wasn't a full-blown depression, I was feeling pretty blue.

It worked! Getting things down on paper/viewable media helped expunge a few inner demons. It wasn't a case of physically pinning writhing, impish homunculi to a web page; I don't think you'll see many examples of specific psycho-analysis going on. What did happen was that I felt a growing sense of empowerment. I could write down thoughts/ideas and come back later to re-read them and think... well think anything from 'What *was* I thinking!?' to 'What was I *taking*!?'.

In summary, it allowed me to step back and say 'OK, never mind if nobody is interested in what I say, never mind if an editor hasn't ripped it to shreds and put it back together in a sensible and coherent manner, I can still write some pretty cool stuff.'

Why I Didn't Start Earlier
Seems this realisation was important to me. While I did pretty well at school in most subjects, English wasn't my strongest. In fact, I was pretty atrocious at it. I couldn't see the point in reading books and discoursing floridly about motivations and symbolism. Oh, I enjoyed *reading* books (mainly sf of which more shortly), and did so avidly. Unfortunately, what was taught seemed like a lesson in how to stick pins in kittens. My attitude led a somewhat rebellious streak coming out, and the result was predictable: I failed.

Well, well! There is now an impish homunculus pinned to this web page! In retrospect, I do not blame the system that screwed me. I could have identified what I wanted to get out of the subject, worked on that, learned to play the game with the rest, and got through. The fault in not doing so is entirely mine.

I do feel, however, that I would have done better if a better distinction had been made in the two English streams. The bane of my school existence was titled 'English Expression'. This should have concentrated on 'how to communicate... using English'. Unfortunately, from my introverted, geeky perspective, it was taught in a style more in keeping with its more advanced stream 'English Literature'. Yes! By all means, discuss the clever structures, symbolisms and backgrounds in the latter. There, it may be assumed that you know the basics of the language! Indeed, my grasp of grammar and style wasn't really the issue. English wasn't the problem, it was the *expression*! I just couldn't get my thoughts down on paper fast enough, and became fixated on the prospect of having to write four essays in three hours. I had no thoughts to express! Rather, I was trying too hard: overcompensating, and trying to put down deep and meaningful insights that weren't really to be found in the subject matter.

Even so, mea culpa. Now, moving on...

What I Wrote
Where was I? Oh yes, the discovery that
a) I *could* actually get my thoughts on paper (courtesy of a bit of remedial work by a long-suffering post-graduate supervisor) and
b) though I might say so myself, what I wrote had some pretty interesting points (based on a subsequent reading) Yes, I know this is entirely subjective. Still, a little ego is useful as a catalyst, if nothing else.

Now, bear in mind, this blog was started back in 2003. The interactive online tools made possible by what is called 'Web 2.0' were only becoming mainstream. Not all that many people had taken them up. Then again, Rumsfeld had attempted to 'shock and awe' recalcitrant Iraqis with the overwhelming military might of America, Bush was smugly declaring 'Mission Accomplished' from the decks of an aicraft carrier, and a chap called 'Salam Pax' was blogging to tell the world that the truth was a little more complicated than that.

Pax inspired me to get on the blogging band wagon. I initially did so from the perspective of having a 'dear diary' to hand.

I wrote of geeky things: stuff that occurred to me as they did.

I wrote of my growing outrage to the utterly counter-productive manner in which the 'War on Terror' was being waged.

I wrote what I thought.

Of course, what blogging also allows is *interaction*: not only can you see what other people have written, you can *comment* on it! Not that anyone has, or is likely to, comment extensively here. I'm fine with that, this is a sounding board for me. On the other hand, I began to comment extensively elsewhere. Comments begat responses. Conversations formed, and communities were established.


What I Wrote Next
The number of posts I made to this blog started to diminish. I suppose this is the fate of a lot of toys. Initial wild enthusiasm gives way to fond familiarity, gives way to other things. It wasn't that I gave up blogging entirely. I have started a couple of additional blogs (which you can see in my pofile):
  • Casting Light: a brief attempt to categorise what would be needed for a trustworthy online voting system
  • Adventures in Bad Coding: a slightly tongue in cheek, and self-mocking narrative on what problems/disasters/solutions I have encountered while earning a crust as a software developer.
  • The Chips Are Down: a fictional account of my experiences in 2019 as the scenarios of the MMORPG 'Superstruct' unfolded.

Why I (Nearly) Stopped Writing
I discovered the blog's bigger, studious cousin: the wiki

I discovered the blog's little, excitable sister: twitter

In short, my online presence dispersed. I slept.

My circumstances changed as well. I was out of work for a large part of 2009. While this could have been a time to expand on my thoughts online, it is actually quite stressful to be doing nothing, ad I clammed up. The few postings I have then are fairly bitter grumps about how useless employment agencies were. The job I then took chewed up a lot of spare time, and wasn't a particularly inspiring job either.

Blogs take time to write. For all that I have the confidence to write now, it still doesn't flow quickly. Ideas need to be organised and made coherent (believe me, this post would be anything but coherent if it were posted as written down!)

Tweets, however... Pascal's excuse for writing a long letter is automatically excised by the 140 character limit. Write your thought, and be done!

I emitted my first faint 'cheep' last December, something about my excellent timing in choosing to ride an errand in a thunderstorm. As it turned out, I was just in time to be deluged by the wikileaks cables controversy. It was a heady time. Oh, I howled my indignation at the absurdity of our so-called leaders with the best of them! I found myself egging on the exploits of 'anonymous' with the rest of the flock.

It also occurred to me, in reading some of the cable's contents, that the main target of wikileak's ire should not necessarily be the conduct of the US diplomatic corps. The real news was not the (rather mundane) contents so much as the scandalised over-reaction to having them revealed. It smacked of fear, but of what?

Similarly, in recent weeks the 'occupy ...' protests have been occupying time that should perhaps better be spent in getting a job and doing jobs around the house (and, while messages of support may count, being... productive)

Why I Write Now
Now, however, I have recently received a tweet from Neil Gaiman to use and answer the tag #whyIwrite in celebration of the National Day on Writing (never mind that I'm international). I find, in responding to this simple question, that it involves a *lot* more than a simple 140 characters can encompass. I have taken a voluntary redundancy from that drear job mentioned above, and find I now have time go over the reasons why I write. I doing so, and in looking back on what I have written, I re-discover reasons why I should keep on writing.

First, I have as a mascot, a mongoose. It's inversion is representative of the fact that I come from downunder. It's a mongoose because the motto ascribed to that clan by Kipling is 'run and find out'. An early reason for my writing was to find ideas, and link them together.

This is not a new concept. Indeed, pointing out ideas is the prime motivation for communication, be it English or hypertext.

Going back, I pause by the tales I spun while playing Superstruct. From the perspective of another man, three years older, I find some of them frankly astonishing.

I wrote of 'Rook Parliaments', allowing refugees to maintain a cohesive sense of self-governing community.

I wrote of 'surfing the superthreat cascade' by complementarianism: piling on initiatives that caused the various threats to counter rather than augment each other in bringing on extinction.

I wrote applications to better display the play between other people in the game (they worked too, although the back-end database is no longer available)

There is a thread there, one that is captured by a chap called Ethan Zuckerman. He writes of 'homophily', the love of sameness that discourages us from seeking out other perspectives. He talks of the growing need for 'xenophily'; of bridging the gaps between peoples and, as he put it, to tell stories. He ended with a plea for help in promoting this; a plea I now regret to say I never answered.

Why I Will Keep Writing
I started by saying I haven't thought of an ending to this story of why I write. The act is, of course, intricately bound up with why I read.

Why I read is to learn; and to see things differently. Why I write is so that someone, somewhere, may also come to see things differently.

Architectual design patterns (the software ones, at least) speak of bridges as a means of linking divergent behaviour together without invoking a combinatorial explosion. Didn't get that? Hmm! Well, never mind! In reality, bridges start out as a means of establishing links that weren't there before.

Bridges are important. They need to be built. They need to be maintained.

As it happens, in the last week, a few articles have caught my eye:
  • A coverage of 'absurd' inventions that have gone on to become commonplace anyway. Included in the list is the 'Universal Translator'. A useful tool, although I think Zuckerman's needs are deeper.
  • A graphical description of how about 100 companies effectively control the world's economy. David Brin's excited about this, for a number of reasons I'll leave him to explain here. The occupy movement needs to take note as well
  • A tweet from Alex Steffen about how living trees have been converted into bridges. Think of infrastructure, and of bio-mimicry. Think *AWESOME*

So, on a bridge, two strangers met, and strangers were no more.

And beyond the bridge? What then? The road goes on...