Take Some Time…

…And read William Langeweische’s dissection of “Columbia’s Last Flight,” wherein he delineates the (mostly organizational) pressures that lead to the failing of the space shuttle Columbia. You probably won’t learn anything new, but Langeweische’s clear presentation lays out the sequence of events making crystal clear how and where the communication breakdown occurred. Particularly valuable for folks interested in organizational psychology — the NASA bureaucracy did all it could to protect itself, though such actions ironically lead to its ultimate failure and exposure.

My cup runneth over.

So, I’ve been doing some research on information retrieval, visualization, social navigation, blahblahblah.

And one of the recurrent themes is that we are awash in information, and need tools to find the good stuff.

And it made me think. My problem isn’t finding the good stuff. The web has inundated me with good stuff. There’s so much good stuff, I don’t know what to do with it. Trying to do simple research on a topic is overwhelming.

How do I cope with this embarrassment of riches?

TRUISMS

A pedestrian homage to Jenny Holzer. And an ongoing project.

It is impossible to take seriously anyone drinking Corona Extra.
(this is doubly true, if something can be doubly impossible, if there is citrus in the bottle)

You overhear the word “gynophobic” only in a college town.

Book Review: Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science

I recently finished reading Charles Wheelan’s Naked Economics, an engaging primer on the discipline. Economics is everywhere, and we’re made to feel out of touch if we don’t understand the signficance of the latest unemployment report, the gross domestic product, why people hang on Alan Greenspan’s every word, etc. etc.

This book introduces you to the fundamental concepts underlying the field of economics, and it would make Chevy Chase-as-Gerald Ford proud — there’s no math. Well, no equations. There are the equivalent of word problems, I suppose, but they’re very easy to grasp.

As a bleeding heart liberal, it can be difficult coming to terms with what seems to be agreed upon as sensible economics. Not that Wheelan stumps for total libertarian laissez-faire-ism. He recognizes that markets are amoral, and, well, humans aren’t, and we need systems to bridge that (like, say, government). But he’s awfully convincing on the need for pretty much unrestricted free trade. Or rather, that free trade should not be restricted by issues of job displacement — the pain in the short run of having people out of work is more than made up for the fruits of a worldwide increase in economic standings that free trade provides. (Though we still need to keep a watchful eye on the externalities of unbridled trade, things like environmental degradation, and make sure that we’re not letting things get out of hand.)

And I found it interesting that Wheelan, who definitely promotes freer trade and less restricted markets than we have now, pretty much comes down on the side of universal health care as the only way to manage what is otherwise an unholy mess.

I also found myself wondering just what economics is. To a certain degree, there seems to be no such thing as economics — it’s simply what you get when you overlay business, political science, and sociology. This was brought home when Wheelan relates a study wherein researchers showed that a woman who auditions for a position with a symphony is something like 50% more likely to get the position if she is hidden during the audition, then if she auditions in full view. Showing, of course, sexism. This strikes me as straight-up sociology, but since the research deals with getting a job, all of a sudden it’s economics. Okay.

Social Software Website That’s Got It All

So, I just found a website that supports personal publishing with extensive comments, a la blogs, and allows you to make explicit connections to other people, a la Friendster. It also takes those ideas a step further — it utilizes your network to recommend content that will likely be of interest to you. And it does all this within a working business model which earns money for the site, while also being able to allow the writers a cut of the proceeds (similar to Google’s AdSense program).

Ready to learn who it is? Got a pen handy?

It’s Epinions.com.
(cue “waaah-waaah-waaaaaaahhhhhhhh” sound.)

(For those who don’t know, I was Creative Director of Epinions from October 1999 to November 2000. You have me to blame for the logo and color scheme (designed by MetaDesign under my watch), as well as the design of the member center. Everything else has changed dramatically since I left.)

Yes, Epinions is “just a product buying guide”, though that wasn’t always going to be the case. A product buying guide was seen as a worthwhile proof of concept for a new model of supporting personal publishing. We figured that Epinions would evolve to include all manner of writing. The acquisition by Dealtime suggests that such a direction is pretty much dead.

While I get the parlor game aspect of Friendster, I’ve never quite understood the real value that people see in it. A personal network for network’s sake doesn’t provide a whole lot, except maybe introductions to people you want to date. In contrast, Epinions’ Web of Trust was designed so that your personal network would help you find and filter the massive amount of information available to you, providing you with content you’d be more likely interested in. (There were issues with jumpstarting the effectiveness of the Web of Trust — its impact was minuscule at the outset, and people didn’t really see the value.)

The other thing that Epinions offered was a financial model to pay writers. The idea is that if you wrote a review, and a lot of others read it and found value in it, you would be compensated with a cut of the advertising revenue that that page received. This, of course, requires the world to read and write within the domain of Epinions.com. I was asked in an interview why I had stopped writing movie reviews on my website, and instead did them all on Epinions:

“Why simply give away the work of writing a review when I can maybe earn some cash, maybe even recoup the cost of the ticket or rental? … If I want my thoughts on movies to be read by as many people as possible, it makes more sense to put it in a place devoted to movie information, such as the Movies area of Epinions, than on my personal site.”

The success of Google has dramatically reduced the meaning of “place-ness” for types of content. Through the Google search engine, you can find relevant writing on the entire web. And writers can utilize Google AdSense ads to monetize the traffic that Google sends you. As Matt pointed out, with a blog and some Google Ads, you can make some real money.

Hell, I just remembered that Epinions presaged some of the RSS world with a little tool called “Epinions2Go.” It was a piece of JavaScript code that you could place on your website, and it would populate it with a little module of links to Epinions articles. Bicycling websites could show links to bike reviews through the module; vanity web publishers could show links to their reviews.

I don’t quite know the reason for this post. It’s not to say, “Harrumph! It has all been done before!” Because, well, Epinions hadn’t done it the way Friendster, Google, blogs, RSS, etc. have. It was something of a pioneer that couldn’t quite focus on what it’s essence was… Until it was decided the essence was “product buying guide.” This made short-term financial sense (it’s comparatively easy to make money sending people to merchants), but you have to wonder at what long-term vision cost.