Christmas Eve links

A batch o’ links from the last several weeks that I’ve been too lame to upload until now. If you want a more consistently updated feed of web pages I find interesting, I’m starting to use more regularly, and you can check out my saved links there.

  • John Perry Barlow has been involved with a somewhat disturbing case recently. Barlow was, among other things, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, a co-founder of the EFF, and the writer of the infamous Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. He’s an ornery guy that will fight for his rights. So when he got busted coming back from Burning Man for drugs in his checked luggage, instead of pleading out, he decided to fight the case as the result of an illegal search. He feels that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has far overstepped its bounds as a protector of security, and extended it to enforcing other lifestyle choices.

    On the one hand, I think Barlow’s an idiot. Flying with illegal drugs in your luggage is just dumb, especially when you’re a well-known counterculture figure. On the other hand, the prosecution is even more scary. The idea that the TSA can get away with whatever they want under the guise of security is frightening. The fact that they wouldn’t even answer questions about their procedures due to the dangers of revealing “Sensitive Security Information” is downright Orwellian. And since I’m unconvinced that any of the security procedures actually make us any safer, I’m for anything that reduces their power. Neither side is particularly respectable in this case, but I have to lean towards Barlow’s side. It’s a tricky case, though, one worthy of thought. So I link to it.

  • Anybody who’s read this blog for any length of time knows that I worship Joel on Software. His latest rant, Camels and Rubber Duckies, is an absolutely hilarious discussion of the difficulties and perils of pricing software. He rambles on for about 5000 words and in the end, has no solutions to offer, because people’s reactions to prices are so context-dependent (i.e. people will pay more for quality, but will go positively ballistic if other people are getting a better price). Pricing ends up being very difficult because you have to optimize along several different parameters at once. In light of my recent post discussing truth vs. context, I found this quote particularly entertaining:

    There’s a real strong tendency to assume that experiments done on large populations of people should work out just like experiments done with chemicals in a high school lab, but everyone that has ever tried to do experiments on people knows that you get wildly variable results that just aren’t repeatable and the only way you can be confident in your results is to carefully avoid ever doing the same experiment twice.

  • In a totally separate area, Jakob Nielsen discussed the importance of context in his latest column. For web usability, he points out that having sensible follow-up options available in response to a user’s previous actions is much more important than having a sensible global information architecture. People map their own way through the web. A good global architecture may help them find something the first time (if they understand the architecture and it maps well to how they think about the site), but after that, they want to extend their own path. Context context context. Yes, I’m on a bit of an obsession right now.
  • Actually, as long as I’m rattling on about context, I’m in the middle of two books from my recent Amazon order which are all about the importance of context. One of them, Sources of Power by Gary Klein, discusses how decision-makers in time-critical life-threatening situations use a form of decision-making that he calls RPD, Recognition-Primed Decisions (something like that – I don’t have the book with me). He has studied firefighters, paramedics, and military commanders to demonstrate that they rarely use the logical “draw up a set of options, evaluate each option, and then take action” decision-making process that an MBA might use, because there isn’t time. Instead, they recognize aspects of the situation from their previous experience, and act immediately, to the point where several of them claimed they weren’t even making decisions – they were just doing what had to be done at each step.

    The other book, Managers not MBAs by Henry Mintzberg, bemoans the separation of MBAs from business context. He feels that the MBA culture derides the importance of knowing a business in making decisions about that business, from the prevalence of case studies to the fact that MBA students often have very little experience before going to business school. Because the MBAs have no context with which to evaluate what they’re told, they accept it blindly and the cycle of destructive decision-making continues. I just thought it was interesting that both of these books have similar themes at a time when I’m on this context kick myself. But anyway…

  • I’m not sure how I found this thoughtful post about the impact of blogging, but I like it a lot.

    …millions of bloggers adding tens of millions of permanent links to the net every day have to be fundamentally shaping Google’s (and similar engine’s) results, and therefore the information gathering experience of the majority of the online world. I’m not saying this is good, or bad: but if it’s true, it’s terribly significant.

    From my own personal experience, I think he has a point. I don’t need a search engine for my blog; I just use Google. A lot of times when I’m writing up a post, I want to refer to an old post of mine. If I can remember a phrase I used (e.g. conservative postmodernism, I put it in Google, add in “nehrlich” and it will find the post for me. And I continue to be amazed by where links to my page pop up. Several of my book reviews are linked to across the web. People come across my stuff in the oddest ways. And, to take his point, posts like this links post are my way of contributing back to Google, of helping to put my imprint on pages that I think matter, by raising their PageRank via my blog. It’s a collective endeavor of deciding what matters. This would probably be a fruitful topic for a post of its own at some point, because it’s even better than a democracy, because if you don’t like what the majority (e.g. Google) thinks, you can always restrict the search set. Information spheres colliding. Ways of making context universes intersect. I’ll have to think some more about this.

That’s it for this round of links. I don’t know if I’ll get around to posting original content this weekend. For those of you who are dangerously addicted to the internet and are still online like me, I wish you a joyful non-denominational winter solstice celebration.