Monthly Archives: January 2005

I Heart Tags

After Dave Winer cited my Friday post about tagging, I’ve been remonstrating with myself for saying only part of what I wanted to say. Yes, there’s a problem with the present state of (and the fact that Roland and Dan chimed in tends to reassure me that I wasn’t just being cranky). Yes, the overhead of effort presently imposes a high tariff on early adopters (Dan appositely cites the contrasting example of entering music information in an online database). Still, as I said before, I love the idea of tags, and I see plenty of reason to care about them.

Here’s a Shirky-an reason for my remaining hopeful about tags. In my biblical-interpretive line of work, and especially given my idiosyncratic interests, I spend a lot of time wrestling with the ways that the Library of Congress classification system parcels out the books I care about. Since I specialize in theological hermeneutics, I have to look for books (all intimately connected with one another in my imagination) shelved under specific New Testament books or authors, particular theological themes, philosophical hermeneutics, and comparative literature (to take only four disparate examples). These books reside in different parts of at least three different libraries at Northwestern. Top-down classification systems impede my work, and tend to reinforce a view of knowledge current at the moment the system was devised; if the organic semantic Web were a few degrees easier, more rewarding, to implement, with the prospect of durable return-on-time-invested, I’d be all over it.

And for ad hoc purposes, tags already have shown their usefulness. A week ago Saturday, I wrote on a chalkboard at Seabury, “flickr tag blogwalkchicago.” within minutes, flickr and Technorati showed a satisfying array of posts and photos. It also points to a weakness in the concept: if you look simply for “,” you’ll find a fuller array of references, many of which don’t show up on the more specific search even though the more specific search term applies equally to them (and I’m not sure I tagged everything I posted with the simpler “blogwalk”).

So yes, if (as Dan points out) the rewards were not so thin relative to the effort, if (as Roland points out) software support more frictionlessly relieved tagging of its nuisance factor, if (as Shelley points out) we didn’t confront a multidimensional spam/bother/imprecision/then (as David points out) a ground-up, user-oriented tagsonomy would rock. Something like that still seems like the likeliest alternative to an metascheme for organizing all online knowledge (in which this blog would be destined to be relegated to the BS section, as are my books (BS 476.A32, BS 476 .H24, BS 2397 .A32, to pick three). But we haven’t turned up the device that’ll kick that engine into gear, not yet.

If It Came In A Bottle

Last week, Micah pointed me to the cover story in The Prospect, which I (in turn) called to the attention of my Writing Workshop students. At one point the author, Richard Jenkyns, quotes the canonical essay on bad English, George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” with devastating force:

Orwell found certain faults common to all of these passages – ugliness, staleness of imagery and lack of precision: “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.”

As I reflected on this point — so vividly (or, more to the point, so dully) reflected in daily discourse — I remembered the wounded disclaimers I’ve so often encountered from people who wrote or said clumsy things. Somewhere, somehow, many people have gotten the idea that it should be easy to communicate exactly what they want to communicate. That belief has attained the status of an axiom for these writers, so that the repeated evidence that communicating accurately is not that easy tends not to disconfirm the axiom, but rather to demonstrate that everyone else bears the fault.

So I must reckon not primarily with the problem of teaching such writers as these to communicate well, but more fundamentally with the challenge of persuading them that communicating precisely may require more effort than they want to think. If you express yourself so vaguely that I can only guess at what you mean; or if you express yourself so tediously that it’s hard to pay attention; or if you give me no clues from which to infer the point of your discourse; or if you say something foolish, or wrong, or self-contradictory, or injurious, it’s not your reader’s problem — but yours. And it’s up to you to do something about it.

Poll Tags

When I read about Technorati tags, I was excited. In fact, I knew to be excited about it because Kevin messaged me, and first thing I read about them online was David Weinberger’s encomium, and when Kevin and David are excited about something, I know enough to realize that it’s good. And when it involves searching (Kevin’s area) and epistemological taxonomy (David’s area of concentration), somebody who respects those guys as much as I do simply must get excited. So I did.

But I should pause to say that I’m not a natural for “tags.” I’ve hardly ever used tags. I didn’t begin tagging my pictures for flickr for ages; even now I’m liable to tag pretty cursorily (no, I don’t mean “with a computer pointing device”). I don’t use categories in my own Moveable Type posts, although the Seabury site that used to be (and may someday live again) integrated categories into its architectural rationale. And once I started thinking about tags, I felt chagrined; the folksonomized Web that David envisioned, that Kevin and Stewart and all had begun to implement, presents such a tremendous opportunity — but here I was, too lazy to tag. I had worked on my to care about valid mark-up, and I emphasized this aspect of the Seabury site. But I just wasn’t sure I had the determination to add Technorati tags to my posts. You’re too polite to complain, but I get long-winded — how would I tag my monologues without repeating most of the words? I was going to be a stick between the spokes of the organic semantic Web, when my friends were building and turning the wheels.

So I didn’t blog about tags at all. I thought they were a great idea, but I didn’t have the energy to implement them here, and I didn’t want to be a party pooper. Who knows? Maybe if the haphazard-HTML writer I once was can become a CSS ascetic, even lazy AKMA could become a tags-onomist.

But now Shelley has spoken up and even illustrated her wise words, and I think I have to agree with her (I didn’t implement “nofollow” either, so she’s my official Webby Oracle this week). It’s not so much the vulnerability to spam; it’s not so much the imprecision; it’s not so much the bother tagging; but the cumulative effect of a number of “it’s-not-the”s tarnishes the luster of this really great idea.

Brilliance still peeks out from beneath the tarnish. The idea excited me at first, and it still does in a murky way. I expect that the fantastic organic semantic webbiness of the idea will come to expression in more spam-resistant, more precise, less cumbersome ways, and I expect that I’ll get on board in a while (no doubt before it’s really easy and an obvious thing to do); that far, I share David’s ultimate confidence in a grassroots taxonomic web. For now, though, I remain unconvinced about this step toward the Web of .

It’s A Gift

Don’t let me near your database — okay?

Last fall, the database on the Disseminary site fell to bits when I tried to upgrade the Moveable Type installation without hand-holding; yesterday, the other MySQL database with which I’m closely associated (Seabury’s MT installation, which hosts my New Testament Resources pages and for which Micah and I just did the redesign I’ve been blathering about) opted to rearrange its bits and bytes during a system upgrade.

I thought for a while about switching to BlogSpot or some other remote hosted service, but then I realized that was selfish; just think of the havoc I’d cause when their database melted down, stranding thousands of innocent users . . . .

Apart From That

I appreciate Amy Welborn’s writing, I s’pose, and the Velveteen Rabbi is a colleague-in-ritual for me, but it strikes me as odd — and not, I hope, only from a self-interested point of view — that only Welborn and Evangelical Outpost are selected to represent Christian blogs in the interesting Deep Blogs “Spiritual Blogs” category. Selecting Welborn’s articulate Catholicism and an explicitly “evangelical” oage neglects a pretty broad and significant Christian readership (though it replicates the big-media tendency to recognize Chrtistians only when they’re Roman Catholic or evangelical). Chacun à son goût, of course, and Deep Blogs may simply be uninterested in a technological theologian’s random thoughts; but I could nominate others who would complement the selection at Deep Blogs (I would say they would “flesh out” the list, but I’m in the middle of lecturing through St. Paul this term).

Almost Done

I spent much of today combing through Seabury’s website, trying to make loose ends meet, to replicate arcane (sometimes bizarre) layout, to palliate outdated information and links. When I finally got the new version ready, and ran into vexing permissions problems.

So I can’t say that the new Seabury site is live, now. But it’s lying on the lab table, electrodes attached to its temples, with the Van de Graff generators* and Jacob’s-Ladders making dramatic sparks in the background. If Bruce can sort out the permissions tomorrow, it’ll be the cue for the townspeople to grab their torches because — it’s alive!

* Hat tip to Jane for reminding me what those doohickeys are called. . . . .

Pretty, Pretty

Last trip to the library to pick up books to feed Pippa’s literary voracity, I bumped into Matisse : From Color to Architecture, a compendious documentation of Matisee’s work before and during the design and construction of the Dominican chapel at Vence. As an ally of the Dominicans, an enthusiast for Matisse, and (as I just mentioned) a Francophile, I had to take the book out. It looks fascinating — though it triggers my caution that I’m reading out of my field, and I oughtn’t simply accept claims and analyses because they’re printed in an elegant book. . . .

Moi? Pourquoi?

It seems as though France 2 is planning a story on “the global blogging phenomenon,” and I’m on their list of people who might be worth interviewing. They’re particularly interested in my reflections on bloggers’ electronic afterlife, especially the Cyber Crypt that Joi and David foisted on me, and that Jeneane wondered about before me. Between worrying about whether the interview will be in French (“Bien sûr? Pourquoi pas?”) and trying to remember what we were talking about a year and a half ago, I wonder whether this is a tremendous honor for a Francophile such as I, or simply the decline of Western civilization.

And it looks as though I may be going to Freedom-to-Connect, too. That’s got to be the limit; no way can I squeeze in more gigs this spring. Don’t even think of it. Just say “No.”

Sic Transit Filius Mea

Just Saturday, I referred Josiah to Paul Graham’s terrific hypothetical speech to a real high-school class. We shared our amazed delight at Graham’s perspective; I particularly relished his account of secondary education:

When I discovered that one of our teachers was herself using Cliff’s Notes, it seemed par for the course. Surely it meant nothing to get a good grade in such a class.

In retrospect this was stupid. It was like someone getting fouled in a soccer game and saying, hey, you fouled me, that’s against the rules, and walking off the field in indignation. Fouls happen. The thing to do when you get fouled is not to lose your cool. Just keep playing.

By putting you in this situation, society has fouled you. Yes, as you suspect, a lot of the stuff you learn in your classes is crap. And yes, as you suspect, the college admissions process is largely a charade. But like many fouls, this one was unintentional. . . .

Why does society foul you? Indifference, mainly. There are simply no outside forces pushing high school to be good. The air traffic control system works because planes would crash otherwise. Businesses have to deliver because otherwise competitors would take their customers. But no planes crash if your school sucks, and it has no competitors. High school isn’t evil; it’s random; but random is pretty bad.

Ouch! Graham inspires me both to speak out in defense of teachers, who work conscientiously to attain goals that their culture and their institutions function to sabotage, and to agree that he pretty much captured my own experience of high school. Mine drifted a little toward the evil — having been beaten and hospitalized sours my nostalgic retrospect — but on the whole, “random” characterizes my experience fairly.

So Si and I were tut-tutting about Graham’s essay, when what do you know, this afternoon he got the fat envelope from one of the colleges to which he applied. Still four to go, still his first choice to go, but for the moment we can rest easy that next year, as long as I can get a good price for my extra kidney, he will move away from home.

That means, by the way, that next year Pippa and Bea and I will be on our own. I sense a situation comedy in the making.

Far Worse Than Here

As you may recall, my Mom lives on Nantucket. I’m looking forward to hearing that she’s OK.

[Update: Margaret got through to my mother this morning; she’d been evacuated to the high school, where she spent a sleepless night sitting in the cafeteria (the cots were unusable). She’s okay, but it’s good for her to be back in her own bed.]