Monday will be my last day at work in Des Moines, which is weird. I knew it was coming a long time ago, but it still snuck up on me. I worked from home for a few months, so it won’t be so odd to no longer be in the office. What will be more strange is returning my laptop and my phone. I won’t get a new laptop nor a new phone until I start my new job in June. Meanwhile I’ll be incommunicado, as they say in Peru (or maybe they don’t — I don’t really know). No phone calls, no emails, no instant messages, no feeds, no weblog posts, no comments. For most of that time, I won’t even have a mailing address. Try not to break anything while I’m out, okay?

I expect this will be a good reminder that the world can go on fine without me. It will be the longest I’ve gone without internet access for at least five years, and the longest I’ve gone without my own phone number since receiving my first phone call. It should also be interesting to see how well I can get along without any connection the world I know. Goodbye cruel world! See you in June.

 

As I was attempting to buy gas last week, I was somewhat startled to read this error message:

Invalid Loyalty

You may recall a few years back, the Defense Department had a Total Information Awareness plan to data-mine credit cards for suspicious activity. And the FBI had its own Carnivore program to survey online activity. Put these two programs together, and the government could shut off my credit card after discovering I didn’t support the war. INVALID LOYALTY.

Thankfully we’re not there quite yet. I was using a gas station affiliated with the local grocery store, and apaprently I pressed the wrong button to indicate I wanted to use my discount card to get a discount on gas (in exchange, apparently, for my loyalty). So when prompted to scan my card, I scanned my credit card. And the result was this, I think, funny error message: INVALID LOYALTY.

I was in a bit of a hurry on my way out of town, but I thought it was worth repeating the process to get a picture of the gas machine apparently questioning my patriotism.

 

At dinner tonight, I thought my waitress was hitting on me. Or maybe not hitting on me, but trying to get me to hit on her. She was about my age, and nicer than one would normally be to a stranger, but of course that’s just part of the job. What gave me the impression she was hitting on me were the long pauses she left after everything I said.

She would say “Are you ready to order?” And I would reply “Yes, I’ll have the Tortelini Portabella.” This is how normal waitress-diner exchanges go in my experience. But then she would just stand there and look at me. What was she waiting for? It was like a scene in a romantic comedy, where one person is afraid to say anything about the obvious chemistry, and instead just waits for the other to bring it up.

Except there was no chemistry. Not on my end, anyway. Not only am I married, but even if I weren’t, she was more creeping me out than attracting me. I was eating at the restaurant attached to the hotel I’m staying in, and charging my meal to my room. So I had given her my room number. In one of those romantic comedies, she would maybe show up at my door later. But in a horror movie, I would wake up in the bathtub missing a kidney. And I was seeing myself more in the horror movie plot. Even if she wasn’t a serial organ-thief (and really, it would be kind of dumb doing that so close to where she works), did she make a habit of picking up guests in the adjacent hotel? Guests wearing wedding rings? Isn’t that a little odd?

Yes, it is, I concluded. I tried to watch as she spoke to other tables. Did she do the same thing with them? The nearest occupied table was too far away to tell. I looked at her co-workers as they walked by. Did any of their faces reveal a secret fear that my waitress was a nutjob? They offered no clues.

But then, toward the end of my meal, my waitress herself revealed the truth. If I weren’t already suspicious, I may not have even noticed. “Is everything alright?“ she asked. “Yes, thanks,” I said. Normally I would expect a waitress to leave my table at this point, but by then I expected this waitress to awkwardly stand there for a moment in silence. She did neither. Instead she did something I didn’t expect at all. She said “Are you done with your sal- *hiccup* salad?” I answered “Yes, thanks,” as I had long ago finished my salad.

Now I’m a little disappointed. My dinner was neither the would-be romantic comedy nor the horror movie I had imagined. It was just a waitress with the hiccups, trying not to hiccup in the middle of talking to me. That’s not very interesting at all. But still, I locked the door.

 

A few weeks ago, my sister-in-law was re-married in the Catholic church. After the ceremony, we went to a party at the house of a friend of the re-couple. The friend had a child, named “Ward,” and my mother-in-law (I think it was her — my memory is poor) knew the family, so she said “Hi Ward” as we were entering the house. And Ward immediately asked “How do you know my name?” From his point of view, I suppose this was a complete stranger addressing him by name, so that was a reasonable question to ask.

My AIM login is “imnotscott”. Back in the day, I went to sign up for an AOL account to use instant messenger, and when asked to choose a login, I chose “scott”. There were maybe twenty million AOL accounts at the time, and apparently one of them claimed “scott” before me. Go figure. So defeated in my attempt to be “scott” on AIM, I went with “imnotscott” instead. If I can’t be myself, I’ll be not myself. Take that AOL!

So now I have my AIM login posted in various public locations around the web, and occassionally I’ll get a message from a complete stranger. They’ll often start the conversation with something like “Hi Scott.” And my first thought is generally “How do you know my name?” But I say “Hi” instead and then seek out a little context for the conversation.

I guess names mean more when we’re younger. Our names are more a representation of our selves when there’s less of us to represent. We know our parents really know us when they call us out with our middle names, because they know all three parts of us. But over time we become something that the names don’t fully describe. When someone says “Scott Michael Reynen,” are they talking about me or the guy I was ten years ago or the kid I was twenty years ago? My name is no longer equivalent to myself.

Some day Ward’s response when someone walks into his house and says ’Hi Ward” will be more like “Hi. What are you doing in my house?” But for now he just wants to know how we know his name.

 

Aaron Swartz, on Wikipedia:

When you put it all together, the story become clear: an outsider makes one edit to add a chunk of information, then insiders make several edits tweaking and reformatting it. In addition, insiders rack up thousands of edits doing things like changing the name of a category across the entire site -- the kind of thing only insiders deeply care about. As a result, insiders account for the vast majority of the edits. But it's the outsiders who provide nearly all of the content.

BoingBoing on Aaron Swartz:

Aaron Swartz, who is running for the WIkipedia executive, has done some data-crunching using a rented supercomputing cluster, against many Wikipedia entries to determine how Wikipedia entries get written.

Jaron Lanier on Wikipedia:

What makes a market work, for instance, is the marriage of collective and individual intelligence. A marketplace can't exist only on the basis of having prices determined by competition. It also needs entrepreneurs to come up with the products that are competing in the first place.

BoingBoing on Jaron Lanier:

It's an engaging essay to be sure, but much more thought-provoking to me are the responses … I have a hard time fearing that the participants of Wikipedia or even the call-in voters of American Idol will be in a position to remake the social order anytime, soon. … Claiming authorship is really just a matter of ego and royalties.

I find it interesting that two people saying pretty much the same thing met such drastically different reactions. I suspect the difference can be attributed primarily to framing. Jaron made the mistake of placing himself on the side of “experts,” in a culture that devalues expertise. Aaron was smart enough to place himself on the side of “the masses,” in a culture that values populism. But these are ultimately just different names for the same group of people.

In a follow-up after all the (deservedly) positive attention he’s received, Aaron writes:

Larry Sanger famously suggested that Wikipedia must jettison its anti-elitism so that experts could feel more comfortable contributing. I think the real solution is the opposite: Wikipedians must jettison their elitism and welcome the newbie masses as genuine contributors to the project, as people to respect, not filter out.

But Aaron’s opposite is just repeating the same argument with more appealing words. Replacing “experts” with “masses,” in the context of a project in which the masses are experts, is a meaningless distinction. But it’s very important nonetheless. Lesson: it matters how you frame an argument, and you can change framing without changing the argument. It would be nice if we could all recognize that Jaron and Larry and Aaron are all correct, but that’s just not how people work. We need our truth wrapped in a good story.

 

I'm offended. Those people, by their actions, have demonstrated the essentially corrupt nature of their society and culture. Their behaviour, which all right-minded people should be offended by, should be universally condemned. If anything shows that we are right and they are wrong, this is it.

Chris Bertram

 

Dave Rogers has been writing about marketing within the frame of "Social Hygiene" here and here. At the end of the latter he wrote:

If we're going to have any hope of preserving some space for purely social interactions, where someone isn't manipulating us for the purpose of seeking a competitive advantage, we're probably going to have to make one. But I wonder if it isn't already too late?

One of the ways I reduce comment spam is to band certain words from being posted in comments. I was at first hesitant to do this, because someone might have a legitimate reason to mention propecia, for example. But then I realized that I don't want to hear other people's thoughts on propecia even if they aren't spam. So you can't comment on propecia here, depsite my ability to use the word three times in a single paragraph.

After reading Dave's post, I wondered if this technique couldn't be expanded to ban commerce from a social space. Here's how I would do it if I didn't already have far too many projects started:

Run all conversation through a filter. Submit each word in the text to the USPTO trademark search with a URL like this one for propecia. If any results are found, replace the word with [commercial product], and maybe give each user an anti-karma value like "pawn of the man" with a point for each time they use a trademarked word. So because I've used the word propecia five times now, my name would say: Scott Reynen [Pawn of the man level 5] or something like that. And then you could kick me out if my POTM level got too high over a given period of time.

I'm sure this plan could use improvement, but I think it's entire feasible to ban all trademarked terms from a social space, and I think it would be an interesting experiment, if nothing else.

 

Over two years ago I wrote "i don't believe there are currently any newsreaders that allow users to subscribe to an OPML file." Over a year ago, I repeated "i believe there are still no newsreaders that allow users to subscribe to an OPML file." I've mentioned this to NetNewsWire author Brent Simmons three times now. Still no subscribe-able OPML.

But now that Dave Winer mentioned the idea, it's being discussed more widely, and I expect it will be implemented by the third anniversary of when I first mentioned it. Sigh. Trickle-down idea economics. Oh well. Better late than never.

 

I very rarely look at people. I've made efforts before to change this behavior, but they never last very long. Now I know why. Cognitive Daily (probably my favorite weblog of late) wrote about an experiment looking into what causes people to look away, which concluded: the reason for looking away is probably simply to reduce the overall cognitive demand and focus on the question.

"The question" in the experiment is one asked by a conversation partner, as it is for most people, who tend to look away mostly when considering an answer. I'm almost always looking away because I'm almost always thinking about something. I'm not saying I look away because I'm smarter than most people (though I am - and so are you most likely); I just think with more concentration, more constantly than most people (I think).

Sometimes this is a good thing, but it's not something I know how to control. I put as much thought into the answer to a rhetorical question as I do into a real problem, not because I don't realize it's rhetorical, but because I don't have an off switch for thinking. Sometimes less thinking would be better.

I think most of my music comes from answers to questions no one asked me. Which is good - I like my music. On the other hand, it makes it difficult for me to record music, especially with complicated recording tools. Bias Peak and Pro Tools are probably great recording software, but I can't play a song while looking at all those buttons. There's too much going on to keep my attention on recording. I want something simple, like Audicity, which doesn't tempt me to think when I should be playing. And even that has too much to think about. I'd like recording software that made the screen go black while recording.

And the same is true of looking at people. There's too much going on in a face to keep my attention on the question. I could look at a cartoon all day and think about something, but people are too interesting, and if I start looking at them, I'll start thinking about something, and then I have to stop looking at them or I'll lose my thoughts and never answer the questions.

I gather most people don't care so much about all these questions. And maybe they're right. Today at work I asked someone "if you hire a siamese twin, do you have to pay both of them?" (Yeah, I know, "conjoined twin," but that's not what I said.) That's not a question most people think to ask.

And that's just what made it past my filter. I spent a few minutes today thinking about how web browsers communicate a cancelled authentication attempt back to servers, and why Safari doesn't seem to do this, and whether anyone has submitted this as a bug report, or whether it is in a spec somewhere that this should happen. I didn't ask anyone else these questions because I know they are neither interesting nor amusing to most people. These aren't questions most people spend time thinking about. Instead, they spend time looking at people's faces.

Is looking at people more important than all these questions? That's a question I'll have to think about some more.