Why I love long pointless books

Eschercrossing

Photo by Regolare

I recently finished Infinite Jest. It's over a 1000 pages, and has no real arc or resolution, but I enjoyed it immensely. Before that I completed the 12 volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time, another sprawling epic without a conventional plot. Apart from literary masochism, or value for money (I picked up Jest second-hand for 50 cents), why read these monsters?

I realized I'm drawn to them because they feel a lot more real than most other fiction. The characters aren't driven to make decisions that the plot requires. Instead they're set loose on the stage, free to behave randomly, like people. That means you never reach a satisfying conclusion, but then my own life has never had clear-cut resolutions either.

I've also been on a Dickens streak recently, but that's mostly been motivated by the wonderful background characters that weave in and out of the stories. His protagonists and villains are clearly being maneuvered according to the author's plan, making them stilted and artificial. He's not constrained when he's sketching the unimportant people, so they can act like human beings. Little Nell is an alien, but I believed in The Marchioness and Dick Swiveller, despite their lack of purpose.

These books help remind me life's about the journey, not the destination. If you want to make part of your trip more pleasant, I'd recommend picking a long pointless book as a companion.

Get a personal map of your social network

I've upgraded Boulder Twits so that everyone listed has their own personal map, in addition to the graphs showing the whole community. They show who you talk to most on Twitter, organized into groups based on who they talk to. As an example, here's my personal graph. There's some clusters that represent different networks I'm in contact with:

Personalmapboulder

The Boulder folks are mostly in a small, tightly-connected pack on one side. It's almost a mini-version of the full community.

Personalmapapple

Only a few of my Apple colleagues are on Twitter, but they're all pretty interconnected too.

Personalmaplegal

Walter Olson is the founder of the Overlawyered legal blog, and as you can see both me and Jeff Nolan are big fans.

Stay tuned, I'll be using this data to answer some questions like "Who are my friends talking to that I should be following?".

True love and statistics

Mathematicallove

Photo by Keng

I ran an analysis of the most frequent correspondents in the Boulder Twits group, and was very happy to see Gwen Bell and Joel Longtine top of the charts. If you don't know their story, they met through Twitter, and will be getting married soon! It's a wonderful romance, and I was so pleased to see solid mathematical proof of their devotion to each other. My own dear Liz is a statistics major, so I know she'll appreciate it too!

Here's the full top 10, ordered by how many tweets were sent or received by each pair. There's a nice mix of friends and colleagues as well as couples:

  1. gwenbell and jlongtine: 222/291
  2. jennyjenjen and pugofwar: 148/210
  3. abatchelor and bfeld 113/115
  4. neogia and wittytwit: 91/137
  5. micah and technosailor: 82/59
  6. brianlburns and kohlmannj: 65/54
  7. heathercapri and wittytwit: 63/53
  8. micah and w1redone: 49/74
  9. briandewitt and jlongtine: 50/49
  10. ewu and jenn: 65/48

Congratulations to Gwen and Joel, long may their tweeting continue.

The D part of R&D

Mousetrap

Photo by Unloveable

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door

That's completely wrong. If there's one thing I've learnt over my career, it's that technical excellence is just a small part of a product's success. Distribution is probably the most underrated ingredient, followed by a revenue model, marketing, financing and just plain good timing.

I started off in the UK, working in companies that were packed with insanely smart and resourceful engineers. There's a wonderful tradition over there of celebrating scientists and inventors, everything from the Faraday Christmas Lectures to Dambusters. That creates a big pool of people who can build widgets.

What was missing was the ability to turn a widget into a product. Selling things is a lot less prestigious than inventing them, with all sorts of class overtones of gentlemen scientists and grubby tradesmen mixed in. As a result, most of my companies produced wonderful code, but meager revenues.

Here in the US, I've been able to learn from people versed in the dark arts of actually building a company, not just a piece of software. To be honest it's a lot harder, computers are far more predictable than a gang of primates, but it's also amazing when you step back and see it starting to work. Taking an idea and turning it into something that sustains itself, a living breathing business, that's rewarding as hell.

I'm may not be there yet, but I'm having a blast as I shoot for it.

What analyzing digital communications misses

Closenessdiagram

Greg Berry just posted a very interesting comment, touching on a question I've wrestled with.

"…lots of business and life happens off the internet (hard to believe, I
know), but even within the digital confines, there are so many
different planes of communications to track."

Probably the best example of this is your significant other or business partner. If you're often in the same room as them, you probably won't send them as many emails as a direct report who's in another office. If you rely on communication frequency for measuring closeness, you'll underrate those relationships. So how do you work around this problem?

Design your algorithms around the blindspot. Google's search results are nowhere near as good as a dedicated human researcher could produce, but that doesn't matter. They narrow it down to a couple of dozen sites you can manually check. A few bogus results or dubious rankings don't matter because they can easily be spotted and ignored. The equivalent for tools based on automated relationship analysis is giving users the option to edit the strength of relationships to correct the occasional mistake, and always giving people a chance to eyeball any decision before any action is taken by the system.

Pick the right problem domain. I'm fascinated by applications in the business world because the relationships I needed the most help with are right in the sweet spot for email. I've sketched the graph above to show roughly the communication frequencies I've experienced. For different industries and generations the lines will shift and scale, but between Bob in accounting and your boss there's probably a lot of people you exchange a lot of mails with. Stick to problems related to those folks, and email frequency will be a good approximation to closeness.

Be realistic about the results. I think the Boulder Twits communication map is the best guide to the relationships in the local tech scene, but that's mostly because it's the only one. As Gregg says, different styles of communications heavily affect the results, even if you forget about the channels it's missing. Heavy Twitter users are far more likely to end up in the center of the graph than less prolific twits. Chris Wand is entirely missing because he's not on Twitter, even though he's heavily involved in the community. As we pull in more and more channels we'll be able to produce far better analysis, and do a lot of useful things, but we'll never capture all the fractal richness of relationships within our primate packs.

Javascript, the ginger-haired stepchild of the language family

Redhead

Photo by Gold Sardine

Liz asked me yesterday what language Mailana is written in. It took me a while to think about it, but the list is C (low-level Exchange interfacing), C++ (speed-critical string processing), C# (Outlook plugin), PHP (most of the server architecture), SQL (database querying), Actionscript (Flash components) and Javascript (rich Ajaxesque browser functionality). It got me wondering why the latter gets so little credit, out of all of them it's probably my favorite to use.

I found Douglas Crawford's explanations of why it's the world's most popular, and misunderstood language rang very true, but what really caught my eye were some demos written as pure scripts:

http://www.monstropolis.org/intro8.html
http://www.monstropolis.org/intro1.html
http://www.monstropolis.org/intro3.html
http://www.monstropolis.org/intro7.html
http://www.uselesspickles.com/triangles/demo.html (There's something deeply twisted about rendering 3D triangles using CSS style tricks, but I just can't look away)

I don't know when Javascript will be welcome in polite society, but dismiss it at your peril. It's now everywhere and there's a whole generation of self-taught programmers headed your way who know nothing else.