Diversity creates knowledge

art by flikr
We Do Different Things:
[Via chrisbrogan.com]
The roles many blogs take, not surprisingly, are very different. They fulfill many of the same functions seen in face-to-face social networks: connector, innovator, aggregator, gossip, etc.

We do different things.

There’s nothing more flattering than being lumped in blog posts alongside Robert or Jason Calacanis or all the other folks who also write a blog on the web. But you have to realize that we do different things. (people are welcome to disagree with my characterizations of them).

Robert Scoble writes about really exciting new things, and he shows videos, and he connects humans, and he scours this space for new amazing things.

Louis Gray seems to own the aggregator/repurposing space, with things like FriendFeed, SocialThing, etc.

Seth Godin is a marketer’s marketer, and points out the human experience with products and services.

Jason Calacanis has a strong history in the web space, and also talks from a media maker’s perspective.

Jeremiah Owyang writes more analysis-based posts on social marketing as an industry.

I could go on for a while, but I guess the point is this: we all keep blogs. We all type about things. But we’re different and offer a different set of take-aways from our writing and thought processes.

That is what is so important about newsfeeds and RSS. Using the right software, they bring together all these diverse thought processes. It is almost like have a virtual conference room filled with some extremely interesting and creative people.

What is often begun as a personal approach towards communication can become, when aggregated, a very rich and very deep conversation, particularly when you add your own perspective on your own blog.

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More on Twitter

butterflies by Felix Francis
Twitter’s growing pains:
[Via Buzzworthy]

It’s hardly news that Twitter is experiencing growing pains, but a couple of items have appeared in recent days that shed some new light on just how bad they’re getting.

As mentioned below, some of the problems Twitter is having while trying to scale are rooted in its basic communication paradigm. It is much more complex than a system based on the telephone company. It is almost as if every phone call was a 5 or 6 person conference call.

Difficult to do with the best experts. But it sounds like Twitter was somewhat surprised by the direction its technology took and was not prepared for the type of growth it sustained. It is still a very small company and one that may not have had onboard all the engineering help it needed.

Twitter is, fundamentally, a messaging system. Twitter was not architected as a messaging system, however. For expediency’s sake, Twitter was built with technologies and practices that are more appropriate to a content management system. Over the last year and a half we’ve tried to make our system behave like a messaging system as much as possible, but that’s introduced a great deal of complexity and unpredictability. When we’re in crisis mode, adding more instrumentation to help us navigate the web of interdependencies in our current architecture is often our primary recourse. This is, clearly, not optimal.

Twitter broke ground on a new manner of using Web 2.0 tools. Time will tell if it is able to maintain its initial success.There are some very difficult problems that have to be solved. But there will be somebody who solves the scaling problem because this tool is just too useful.

Google was not the first search engine., just the best one so far. Web 2.0 works by allowing rapid prototyping of new tools as one works towards perfection. Twitter was able to accomplish a lot with really very little. It has hit a barrier now. It will be interesting to see how this problem get solved. It is not too unlikely that a user who is really knowledgeable will propose a solution.

We have kept an eye on the public discussions about what our architecture should be. Our favorite post from the community is by someone who’s actually tried to build a service similar to Twitter. Many of the best practices in scalability are inapplicable to the peculiar problem space of social messaging. Many off-the-shelf technologies that seem like intuitive fits do not, on closer inspection, meet our needs. We appreciate the creativity that the technical community has offered up in thinking about our issues, but our issues won’t be resolved in an afternoon’s blogging.

We’d like people to know that we’re motivated by the community discussion around our architecture. We’re immersed in ideas about improving our system, and we have a clear direction forward that takes into account many of the bright suggestions that have emerged from the community.

To those taking the time to blog about our architecture, I encourage you to check out our jobs page. If you want to make Twitter better, there’s no more direct way than getting involved in our engineering efforts. We love kicking around ideas, but code speaks louder than words.

That would be the Web 2.0 way.

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Twitter – Good and Bad

fractal by kevindooley
Am I Done with Facebook? Twitter FTW!:
[Via Phil Windley’s Technometria]

I got a message from Facebook today saying that someone had friended me. I realized I didn’t care. Not that I didn’t care about the person who’d friended me–I didn’t care about Facebook. It’s been weeks since I was there and my life is pretty much the same.
I think the reason is Twitter. Twitter is much more social, much more interesting, and the plethora of clients (including any mobile phone with SMS) means that I don’t have to remember to go check the site to see what’s happening. Twitterific displays a solid stream of the 140 character thoughts of my friends.

Because of Twitter, today I know:
There were tornados in Denver and Laramie
Twitter posted an article about their architecture on their blog
There’s a blogger dinner tonight in Salt Lake City
@tylerwhitaker and @bradbaldwin aren’t going to carpool to the blogger dinner

I like that.

Twitter has scaling problems even though their user base is reportedly quite small. As Nik Cubrilovic points out, Twitter isn’t like WordPress or Digg. Twitter is a group forming network (GFN). When a Metcalfeian network adds another user, the number of potential connections goes from N2 to (N+1)2. When a GFN adds one more user, the number of potential connections goes from 2N to 2(N+1). In case it’s been a while since you’d done that math–it’s a big difference.

There are three important ‘Laws’ dealing with networks, social or otherwise: Sarnoff’s, Metcalfe’s and Reed’s. Sarnoff’s Law states that the value of a network (David Sarnoff started NBC) is proportional to the number of nodes. Metcalfe’s Law states that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of nodes. Reed’s Law states that the value of a network increases exponentially with the number of nodes.

Sarnoff’s is linear. It simply demonstrates how much NBC would make if another viewer joined the network. Since the network communicates in only one direction from a single source, the number of connections does not change much with increasing numbers of nodes.

Metcalf’s assumes the nodes can communicate with each other, resulting in multiple connections. This is where network effects come into play. One phone is not useful. Two are a little better, but a network of 10 can be very useful. Metcalf first showed this using this figure:


The line corresponds to Sarnoff’s Law. Metcalf’s, which was derived from the first Ethernet networks, shows that the value for small numbers in a communication network is not great. But this increases rapidly with larger networks.

Now Reed’s law looks at the number of groups that can be formed in a network. So take all the nodes 2 at a time, 3 at a time and so on. This results in the number growing at a rate proportional to 2N. This is much faster growth than Metcalf’s. You can be a member of several different groups, some which have members in common and some that do not.

What this means is that in some social media settings, the number of groups can increase much faster than the number of connections. Here is a consequence of this:

To make this more real, consider TechCrunch’s twitter account. When TechCrunch, with almost 18000 followers, sends a message, that results in 18000 messages–one to each follower. This is like the phone system with infinite, always-on conference call capability. Sure, you can do things internally to collapse some messages, but you’re still dealing with exponential growth.

What is happening with Twitter, that is making it have problems scaling, is that the number of groups substantially increases the number of possible connections and messages it might have to maintain. With email, everyone on the list is sent a copy of the email, that sits on their computer and take up space. Twitter sends messages to phones, for example, possibly 18000 of them in this example.

That is a lot of wasted effort. Twitter may not be the best way to communicate with a large number of people in several different groups.

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Use this tool for searching

lemur by digitalART (artct45)
A search engine for open notebook science:
[Via Michael Nielsen]

There has been some great discussion in the comments on my post about “Open science”. One outcome is that Jean-Claude Bradley has created a search engine customized for open notebook science:


Fittingly, many people contributed to the discussion!

This demonstrates one of the nice abilities of Web 2.0 approaches. Google permits you to set up a custom search for a group of websites. This allows you to perform a directed search using specific terms against a designated group of websites.

This example examines a group of Open Science sites but it is easy to see how this might be useful for other sites. This way you do not have to work your way through a multitudeof irrelevant sites.

RSS is really good for bringing me content but what if I want to find an article from one of my newsfeeds from a few months ago? With this, I can simply add all the websites I track to the custom search. Then I am searching a much smaller but very directed subset of the web and am much likelier to find the old article I read.

A user-generated subset of Google web searches may be very useful for linking the content of several sites. This could be fun to play with. I’ll have to put one together for Science 2.0.

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New Science Tools

Avogadro: Open Source Molecular Building:
[Via MacResearch – Online Community and Resource for Mac OS X in Science]

Avogadro is a new, open source molecular editor for Mac, Windows, and Linux. It is an advanced molecular editor designed for cross-platform use in computational chemistry, molecular modeling, bioinformatics, materials science, and related areas. It offers flexible rendering and a powerful plugin architecture.

While still in beta, the recent 0.8 release brings general usability to viewing and editing molecules on your Mac. You can quickly export graphics to PNG, JPEG, or even POV-Ray rendering, or copy from the editor and paste a transparent PNG into programs like OmniGraffle. Avogadro supports reading from over 80 chemical file formats, courtesy of the Open Babel library.

read more

These sorts of tools will become more and more common – Open Source, mashable, easy to use. The last paragraph says a lot about the goals.

Future plans for the Mac version of Avogadro include integration of Spotlight and QuickLook, as well as built-in scripting in Python. Work is also underway to allow copy/paste from ChemDraw and other 2D chemical drawing applications. Additional builders (e.g., for biomolecules, nanotubes, and nanoparticles) and interfaces to other computational chemistry packages are due for future versions as well.

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Web 2.0 and the Enterprise

scuba by jayhem
How 300,000 IBM employees use Bluepedia wiki:
[Via Grow Your Wiki]

IBM gets wikis. In a 300,000+ person enterprise, a wiki enables emergent collaboration and expertise:

BluePedia is an encyclopedia of general knowledge about IBM, co-authored by IBMers for IBMers, which enables the collection of expertise and know-how of more than 300,000 IBMers around the world into a simple, searchable resource that is easily expanded, shared and used. The single, global co-authoring platform enables the development and implementation of a common worldwide vocabulary and easy recognition and identification of subject matter experts.

300,000 is a lot. Not many companies are going to have that many for a wiki. But from their press release, there is a lot more IBM is doing with Web 2.0 technologies. I am sure we will hear more in the next year.

I did like this from the release:

Web 2.0 technologies create open, collaborative spaces that eliminate the traditional hurdles created by time and distance that businesses worldwide have traditionally faced. The marriage of videos, blogs, and custom publishing enable working professionals to exchange ideas and perspectives using rich, multi-dimensional platforms that foster a two-way dialogue within an enterprise.

As a result, employees can leverage the technology available at their fingertips, regardless of time and place, to drive innovative ideas throughout their enterprises. By linking with several other development sites, guests experienced how IBM technologies drive efficiency, innovation, across the enterprise and tap into high-value skills from the company’s top talent, around the world, to solve the specific needs of its clients.

Companies whose basic products depend on the continuing creativity and innovation of its employees will have tremendous increases in productivity with these tools. The key will be that these tools have to be as flexible and open as possible, allowing new uses to be created by the user, not by the vendor.

The world will move too fast to wait for the vendor to provide the latest tools. IBM will fail here if they lock users into something bloated like Lotus . Lotus was useful for certain directed tasks but was unwieldy when required to adapt to changing or novel environments. It required a superior development staff to keep up. Web 2.0 tools will only succeed when the actual development is minimal and when the users can accomplish what they need themselves.

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Publishable science

Open science:
[Via Michael Nielsen]

The invention of the scientific journal in the 17th and 18th centuries helped create an institution that incentivizes scientists to share their knowledge with the entire world. But scientific journals were a child of the paper-and-ink media of their time. Scientific papers represent only a tiny fraction of the useful knowledge that scientists have to share with the world:

Enabled by a new media form, the internet, the last few years have seen a modest expansion in the range of knowledge that can be published and recognized by the scientific community:

The most obvious examples of this expansion are things like video and data.
However, there are many other types of useful knowledge that scientists have, and could potentially share with the world. Examples include questions, ideas, leads, folklore knowledge, notebooks, opinions of other work, workflows, simple explanations of basic concepts, and so on.
Each of these types of knowledge can be the basis for new online tools that further expand the range of what can be published by scientists:

It’s fun to think about what tools would best serve the needs associated with each type of knowledge. This is already starting to happen with tools and ideas like open notebook science, the science exchange, SciRate, and the Open Wetware wiki.

This is a very good point to make. Publishable information has increased tremendously. We are no longer limited by what the printing press is capable of displaying. We are no longer limited by the number of pages that can be printed a month.

This opens up the possibility of also making available not only the things that went right but those that went wrong. Preventing others from following a dead end would be useful.

Underlying this apparent problem is an opportunity to develop tools to assist scientists in finding relevant information, and to ensure that what they publish – their questions, ideas, and so on – is seen by those people who will most benefit. Ideally, the result will be not only a great expansion in the range of what is published, but also a great improvement in the quality of information that we encounter.

The reason new tools will be developed is that this approach will allow researchers to attack very complex problems in a much more efficient manner than those limiting themselves to the printing press. Success will breed success.

There are, of course, major cultural barriers to acceptance of these new tools. At present, there are few incentives to make use of new ideas like open notebook science. Why blog your ideas online, when someone else could be working on a paper on the same subject? This isn’t speculation, it’s already happening, and sometimes the blog posts are better – but try telling that to a tenure review committee.

Similar comments were made with regarding Open Source. What incentive would there be for creating software for free? It may well be that Open Science is not rewarded in the same fashion as science on paper. I think it is more likely that academia will change to provide proper rewards.

Certainly there are other places to pursue research than a university. In particular, I think there will be an even larger growth in non-profit research institutions over the next generation. They do not usually have the same arcane tenure problems universities do, and often rewarding people more like a corporation does than academia, that is for what they accomplish the meets the institution’s goals rather than where they published.

The successful institutions will find and use the tools that solve problems. They will also find ways to reward those that successfully use them

At the moment, many of these institutions are found in biotech and human health but as more money and focus moves towards using innovative tools to promulgate science, there will be ones for every discipline. And, as the brain drain from academia to these institutions increases, universities will either have to adapt or they will wither.

More flexibility, More collaborative environments. Less overhead. I believe that these research foundations will be the leaders in promulgating open science. It is to their advantage to do so.

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Virtual fun at work

medusa by MrClean1982
Next generation of business software could get more fun :
[Via Washington Post]

Once upon a time, people bonded with their co-workers on office softball teams and traded gossip at the watercooler.

OK, so those days aren’t gone yet. But as big companies parcel Information Age work to people in widely dispersed locations, it’s getting harder for colleagues to develop the camaraderie that comes from being in the same place. Beyond making work less fun, feeling disconnected from comrades might be a drag on productivity.

Now technology researchers are trying to replicate old-fashioned office interactions by transforming everyday business software for the new era of work. The historically dry-as-sawdust products are borrowing elements from video games and social-networking Web sites.

People are social animals and usually need some unstructured time to blow off steam, relax and generally recharge their batteries. In many business environments there are a host of conventions to accomplish this, from birthday parties to golf tournaments to lounges.

Online work will also include similar processes. As this article discusses, there are many approaches to creating break time in a virtual world. Where these tools can be important in research is that many bright ideas come up from the random interaction of a couple of scientists, often in a bar or a party. Crick famously drew up the list of the twenty amino acids used in protein synthesis on a napkin while at a pub before any real evidence existed.

They will have to be careful that the areas are not TOO much fun. Disney is finding out how hard it can be to shutdown a virtual world years after it has served its purpose. But using aspects of Second Life in a business setting may be important for a truly creative research experience.

So online water coolers, ‘inward Bound’ sessions, and even golf tournaments (with trophies) will be important. Just as many research facilities are built today to foster the random interaction of researchers as they stroll between lab and office, online work areas will be designed to take advantage of the non-structured interactions all humans need.

There has always been a little bit of randomness in almost every great scientific endeavor.

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Science 0.5

Science communication has changed as the tools have gotten better. But creativity has always found a way to effectively communicate even with crude tools.

Even without fancy computer graphics, very complex biological reactions could be visualized. It just took hundreds of people. From 1971. Narrated at the beginning in a tie by Paul Berg at Stanford. He won the Nobel Prize in 1980 “for his fundamental studies of the biochemistry of nucleic acids, with particular regard to recombinant-DNA.”

It is the followed by the best mashup of straight biological processes, Jabberwocky and people who look like they are from the road show of ‘Hair.’

No animation, just hundreds of people and a fire extinguisher. But you will probably never forget the mixture of Lewis Carroll, biology and large open spaces.

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Open and transparent

hands by Shutr
Doctors Say ‘I’m Sorry’ Before ‘See You in Court’ :
[Via New York Times]

In 40 years as a highly regarded cancer surgeon, Dr. Tapas K. Das Gupta had never made a mistake like this.

As with any doctor, there had been occasional errors in diagnosis or judgment. But never, he said, had he opened up a patient and removed the wrong sliver of tissue, in this case a segment of the eighth rib instead of the ninth.

Once an X-ray provided proof in black and white, Dr. Das Gupta, the 74-year-old chairman of surgical oncology at the University of Illinois Medical Center at Chicago, did something that normally would make hospital lawyers cringe: he acknowledged his mistake to his patient’s face, and told her he was deeply sorry.

Think about what might happen if the lawyers took a lower profile and the doctors admitted their mistakes, if they were open with their patients. Turns out, something significant happens. Most people accept the apology and forgive the doctor.

This approach directly contradicts what most lawyers advise.

For decades, malpractice lawyers and insurers have counseled doctors and hospitals to “deny and defend.” Many still warn clients that any admission of fault, or even expression of regret, is likely to invite litigation and imperil careers.

But with providers choking on malpractice costs and consumers demanding action against medical errors, a handful of prominent academic medical centers, like Johns Hopkins and Stanford, are trying a disarming approach.

People get really angry when they find out the error was concealed and that it might happen again. As with political scandals, it is the coverup that causes the problems.

So what happens if the doctors and hospitals are open with their patients?

At the University of Michigan Health System, one of the first to experiment with full disclosure, existing claims and lawsuits dropped to 83 in August 2007 from 262 in August 2001, said Richard C. Boothman, the medical center’s chief risk officer.

“Improving patient safety and patient communication is more likely to cure the malpractice crisis than defensiveness and denial,” Mr. Boothman said.

Mr. Boothman emphasized that he could not know whether the decline was due to disclosure or safer medicine, or both. But the hospital’s legal defense costs and the money it must set aside to pay claims have each been cut by two-thirds, he said. The time taken to dispose of cases has been halved.

The number of malpractice filings against the University of Illinois has dropped by half since it started its program just over two years ago, said Dr. Timothy B. McDonald, the hospital’s chief safety and risk officer. In the 37 cases where the hospital acknowledged a preventable error and apologized, only one patient has filed suit. Only six settlements have exceeded the hospital’s medical and related expenses.

From 262 to 83 in 6 years. Defense costs down by two-thirds. Malpractice cut in half. These are game changing numbers, in the completely opposite direction from what lawyers said would happen.

The hospitals have also taken to following up the apology with fair compensation. This has had the effect of changing the behavior of malpractice attorneys.

There also has been an attitudinal shift among plaintiff’s lawyers who recognize that injured clients benefit when they are compensated quickly, even if for less. That is particularly true now that most states have placed limits on non-economic damages.

In Michigan, trial lawyers have come to understand that Mr. Boothman will offer prompt and fair compensation for real negligence but will give no quarter in defending doctors when the hospital believes that the care was appropriate.

“The filing of a lawsuit at the University of Michigan is now the last option, whereas with other hospitals it tends to be the first and only option,” said Norman D. Tucker, a trial lawyer in Southfield, Mich. “We might give cases a second look before filing because if it’s not going to settle quickly, tighten up your cinch. It’s probably going to be a long ride.

In all likelihood, more money ends up in the patient’s pocket and less in lawyer fees. As long as the awards are also open, so that the hospitals can not manipulate the settlements too much, and people can really see that they are not committing the same errors again and again, the beneficial cycle of this should not only drive malpractice suits lower but also help care in the hospitals.

Quality improvement committees openly examine cases that once would have vanished into sealed courthouse files. Errors become teaching opportunities rather than badges of shame.

“I think this is the key to patient safety in the country,” Dr. McDonald said. “If you do this with a transparent point of view, you’re more likely to figure out what’s wrong and put processes in place to improve it.”

For instance, he said, a sponge left inside an patient led the hospital to start X-raying patients during and after surgery. Eight objects have been found, one of them an electrode that dislodged from a baby’s scalp during a Caesarian section in 2006.

This looks like a program that could have huge effects across the country. By admitting their errors and treating the patients like rational human beings, the doctors remove themselves from antagonistic relationships, the hospitals spend less money on lawsuits and the standard of care goes up.

All by showing a little openness and transparency.

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