Blur Circle

Steve Yost's weblog

February 27, 2003
Blogger / Google : Good Bloogle

Starting with David's JOHO item on Google's acquisition of Pyra/Blogger, I've been reading other commentary. I've also read cautionary posts in several places about Google's potential abuse of its near-monopoly power.

How about speculating on the good things that could come out of this acquisition? Both Google and Blogger have a large share of the market they serve. This gives them the power to effectively propose and implement standards. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt and say they'll do this in a open way. Even so there's what I might call the Maxim of Aggregate Power Limits:

Given a market involving the mass exchange of information or materials, any entity with enough market share to create a de-facto standard exchange format naturally incurs enough consumer distrust (due to its dominance) to limit its power to create a formal standard independently.
We know that Google's ranking policy is influenced by weblogs because of their highly inter-linked structure, and that some webloggers are quite influential in the rankings because of their prominent place in the natural Pareto distribution of blogroll and other links. Could search engine results be made even more effective by formalizing the structure of weblogs and other related entities? Here are some areas of standardization that the Google/Blogger combination could ultimately produce (again, we hope it's an open process of standard creation):
  • A weblog format standard
    The standard would define markup for the well-defined parts of a weblog, minimally: the posts, including author and date for each; the blogroll area, containing links to other weblogs. Given this, Google and other search engines could more effectively spider and index weblogs. But it could go further, with standard categories for posts: e.g. movie-review, book-review, auto-dealer-review, political-rant, lazyweb-request. Search engines could create their own channels using these categories, and (if desired) target ads or do more elaborate partnering.
  • Blog topics
    or Ridiculously Easy Group Forming or just Group Forming. This is related to categorization of posts, mentioned above. Could this tie in well with Google Groups, or do they want to keep that as simply skin over Usenet?
  • Blog threads
    i.e. a standard for a defining a threaded conversation among blog posts. We've been discussing that here and elsewhere. Search engines could intelligently spider weblogs to generate the threads and provide a nice interface for traversing them. This would be a benefit for blog readers. Could it benefit search engines by improving ad targetting?Others? What do you think?

  • February 26, 2003
    AKMA on Miles

    Whoa, I've neglected to link back to AKMA's response regarding my recent post on Jack Miles. Thanks also, AKMA, for pointers to further reading, and for help in parsing that second-to-last paragraph.

    What's church?

    I've finally taken time to read Steve Himmer's interesting post on going to church (and related things) that prompted Kurt's and AKMA's thoughtful responses.

    Steve's post reminds me of something I meant to write a few months back. I was reflecting that participating in church is maybe a unique experience: getting together for the sole purpose (ideally anyway) of focusing on something that's much bigger than the sum of all of us present. I put it in these least religious terms because I was wondering if a person who has no experience of God (or believes in the absence of God) could be there and, perhaps suspending that belief just enough to try on the experience (and I don't know how much is necessary), get something out of it.

    For example, the church I attend absolutely rocks when singing hymns, and sometimes lately the organist will drop out entirely for a verse -- I think she's emphasizing something I experienced years ago: if I stop listening to myself and listen to the sound of an entire churchful of people singing, really there and singing a hymn to God, it's a uniquely ... well, it's an amazing experience. I stop short of "a religious experience", which it is to me, for the benefit of my imagined guest. Performing any kind of ensemble music has an element of this group effort towards something immediate, but it must be the aspect of worship that makes this different. It's selfless, yet involving the self directly in community, towards something communally acknowledged as greater than all of us.

    There are other elements to a typical church service, of course. But at best that sense is carried through the entire thing. Like Kurt, I think the social aspect of church sometimes gets in the way of what it's really about for me. (And wow, reading back through Kurt's blog to find that post reminds me I've gotta visit Sainteros daily.)

    February 22, 2003
    On a practical note

    Taking a warm towel out of the dryer without immediately wrapping it around your head is a missed chance for cheap bliss.

    Timely Gary Snyder

    I love these coincidences -- they seem to be inspirations for blog entries for most of us. Last night I read Kurt's interesting post and the thought-provoking exchange between Kurt Brobeck and Dave Rogers about the Slate article by John Horgan on Buddhism.

    This morning, I grabbed The Portable Beat Reader for a quick read and opened to Gary Snyder. One page later, here's what I found. An extensive quote is a lazy way of participating in the conversation, but I thought the coincidence was interesting. (Yes, we know scientifically that coincidences like these are statistically expected, just as we know that the mind is an emergent property --cf the Slate article -- but if we take that too far we find that meaning is an emergent property, and we're lost in meaningless[!] paradox.) I found Gary's writing exciting as coincidence at first, then sloppy as I typed it, and then more relevant as I reasoned with it. Anyway, here's Gary Snyder from p. 305 of The Portable Beat Reader:

    Note on the Religious Tendencencies

    This religiosity is primarily one of practice and personal experience, rather than theory. The statement commonly heard in some circles, "All religions lead to the same goal," is the the result of fantastically sloppy thinking and no practice. It is good to remember that all religions are nine-tenths fraud and are responsible for numerous social evils.

    Within the Beat Generation you find three things going on:
    1. Vision and illumination-seeking. This is most easily done by systematic experimentation with narcotics. ... These are sometimes supplemented by dips into yoga technique, alcohol, and Subud. Although a good deal of personal insight can obtained by the intelligent use of drugs, being high all the time leads nowhere because it lacks intellect, will,and compassion; and a personal drug kick is of no use to anyone else in the world.
    2. Love, respect for life, abandon, Whitman, pacifism, anarchism, etc. This comes out of various traditions including Quakers, Shinshu Buddhism, Sufism. And from a loving and open heart. At its best this state of mind has led people to actively resist war, start communities, and try to love one another. It is also partly responsible for the mystique of "angels", the glorification of skidroad and hitch-hiking, and a kind of mindless enthusiasm. If it respects life, it fails to respect heartless wisdom and death; and this is a shortcoming. [This point #2 seems sloppy to me, but it's mainly a hit against pollyannish New-Agey participation.]
    3. Discipline, aesthetics, and tradition. This was going on well before the Beat Generation got into print. It differs from the "All is one" stance in that its practitioners settle on one traditional religion, try to absorb the feel of its art and history, and carry out whatever ascesis is required. One should become an Aimu bear-dancer or a Yurok shaman as well as a Trappist monk, if he put himself to it. What this bit often lacks is what 2 and 3 have, i.e. real commitment to the stewpot of the world and real insight into the vision-lands of the unconscious.
    The startling conslusion is that if a person cannot comprehend all three of thes aspects--contemplation (and not by use of drugs), morality (which usually means social protest to me), and wisdom--in his beat life, he just won't make it. But even so he may get pretty far out, and that's probably better than moping arond classrooms or writing books on Buddhism and Happiness for the masses, as the squares (who will shortly have succeeded in putting us all down) do.


    February 21, 2003
    Jack Miles responds
    Jack Miles kindly responded to my suggestion and has posted the second appendix of his book Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God on his web site. Among other things it presents the fascinating approach that he took to writing the book itself (I assume it applies to God: A Biography as well). I strongly recommend reading this essay, and if it interests you at all, get his book, which has the same scholarly integrity and clear direct approach, but flows even more in a narrative style.

    I'd like to learn AKMA's (and anyone else's) response to Jack's points on postmodern literary criticism of the Bible. It would help me understand more, because I haven't yet taken the time to read AKMA's admired books (one of which should be next on my reading list).


    February 15, 2003
    Car Talk Puzzler: Switches and Prisoners

    Here's my answer to the Car Talk puzzler that I noticed on David's site yesterday. I sent him an answer last night, then woke early this morning realizing a flaw. Writing it again, I think I could state more concisely, but here's what I sent to David and Car Talk:

    One prisoner is designated the record-keeper. The right-hand switch is used to indicate new visitors to the switch. When a person visits for the first time, he flicks the right-hand switch up if it's not already up -- otherwise he has to wait until he finds it down to switch it up.

    If a prisoner finds the right-hand switch already up, he must flick the left-hand switch. Only the designated record-keeper can flick the right-hand switch down, to reset it for the next 'round'.

    The first time the record-keeper visits the switch, he flicks it down if it's up, but he can't count that instance: he may be the first one to visit, and nobody knows the original state of the switches. On subsequent visits he keeps track of how many times he finds the right-hand switch up, and when it's 22, it's sure that 23 (including himself) have visited.

    [Update 5:37am: I just read the IBM solution
    (July 2002) and I see the error in mine. Each prisoner really must flick the right-hand switch up at the first *two* instances they find it down, and the record keeper must count to 44. That's because none of the non-record-keepers knows whether they're the first prisoner to visit (in which case their first visit won't be recorded by the record-keeper).

    My answer would never result in an alligator meal, but it only has a 1/23 chance of freeing the prisoners (assuming random selection of prisoners): the count would only reach 22 if the record-keeper were chosen first.]

    February 09, 2003

    Glenn Gould totally rocks playing Hindemith. Humming and all.

    February 05, 2003
    Care about war. Care about conservation?
    As I get out of my car, Powell prepares to make the case for war. As I enter the office building, I see that the sign that said
    Please Use Revolving Door -- Help Conserve Energy
    has been changed to
    Please Use Revolving Door -- Help Keep Building Warm
    I guess nobody paid attention to the energy thing.

    This war, for all the complexity of its motivations, certainly has something to do with oil. Can we change our attitudes about conservation? Are we just too damn mentally lazy, or does the idea carry a Carter-era whiff of weakness -- an affront to our freedom to not care?

    February 02, 2003
    More on Miles' Christ

    This bit of promised followup is opportunistic. I wrote to Jack Miles asking if he'd consider putting the appendices of his book -- fascinating pieces of scholarhip in themselves -- on the web, and he kindly replied that he'd look into it. I took the opportunity to reply (taking an hour for a short paragraph, leaving me once again in awe of eloquent authors like he). So, to fulfill my promise of more on Miles, here's what I wrote:

    Speaking of web pages and links, I was especially intrigued by your notion of the Old Testament as an "implied harmony" for the New Testament, and the importance of the collective familiarity of the Old Testament to the continuity provided by allusions in the New Testament. In the world of the web the "nod of recognition" (cf. p. 261 of your book) of allusion is simulated by the link. So I'm thinking of the Bible as a hyperlinked structure. This is of course already implemented on the web and in many study Bibles. But maybe we can view the (implied at least) linked structure as part of the literary work we're considering. Do you have any thoughts on this? If you do, please don't waste them on an individual email to me -- I'd love to see an article about it.
    Clearly I don't expect a reply, but I'll post it if I get one. (If you're reading, Jack, you're forewarned :-)

    [Update: Jack has already touched on this, as I'd have seen it if I'd re-read a little further. On p. 262 he writes:

    Allusion legitimizes an intrusion of one text upon another or of one portion of a text upon another portion. The "hypertextual" syncretism that results turns the reader who notices into a kind of writer. Morover, a reader thus stimulated may continue in the same direction on his own, making linkages that the author himself may not have indended.