Tag Archives: reviews

The 21st Century Bookclub

For the past six months I’ve been engaged in a fantastic experiment.  6 months ago my friend David Humphrey emailed three friends whose blogs he enjoyed. Each of us (Myself, Humphrey, Mike Hoye and Luke Hill really only knew Humphrey and were essentially strangers to one another. Humphrey proposed we each read each others blogs for 3-4 months and then meet for dinner in Toronto when I was next in town.

I immediately became a fan of the experiment because it highlighted how the internet is reshaping culture. Admittedly, people have been sharing and talking about their writing for decades and centuries, but this activity was often reserved for “writers” or, perhaps, aspiring writers. By greatly reducing the costs of sharing and giving anyone a potential audience blogging has changed everything. Suddenly a group of strangers who only a decade ago might have collectively read something that someone else had written (most likely a book) are instead reading each others creations. It is just a further step (or more of a leap) forward in the democratization of culture and creativity.

In addition however, it was also just purely rewarding. I got to know a couple of guys in a way that was surprisingly personal. Better still, I developed a blogging peer group. I don’t actually know that many people who regularly blog and so having a group who has read what I write and of whom I could ask questions, advice and critiques of my writing was invaluable. More interesting is the ways of I’ve come to admire (and envy) their different styles and approaches: Luke is so unconstrained by form willing to write pieces that are short or long; Humphrey’s blog is so personal that you really feel like you get to know him; and Mike’s blog is just plain fun – with rants that leave you laughing.

If you blog, or even if you write (at which point I think you should blog as well) I can’t encourage you enough to create a 21st century book club (or should we just call it a blog club). You’ll find you will become a better blogger, a better writer and, I think, will make a few new friends.

Here are some fun posts from the others blogs I’d recommend:

Dear Former Homeowners Redux Redux Redux Redux Redux – pure fun for anyone who has owned a home (or note)

A Note to Some Friends – an important rant on the state of community over at Firefox

Fun Facts about the Amazon Kindle – #Canada #Fail

New Media and the Public Sphere – yes. it is that simple.

A Room of One’s Own – no reason, I just liked it.

The Web vs. Canada – funny (and sad) cause it is true.

Defining Open Data – cause it’s important.

Three guys with three different styles. How I love free culture.

Articles I'm Digesting 15/12/2009

Here are some pieces I’ve been reading of late:

You Can’t Handle the Truth by Mark Pothier in the Boston Globe

A great piece about how the classification of drugs used by most Western countries is completely divorced from how much harm those drugs cause. This isn’t surprising, but as the evidence begins to mount regarding which drugs are actually harmful (read alcohol, cocaine or heroine) versus those which are significantly less harmful (read Ecstasy or LSD) the question will increasingly emerge – will science ever inform our policies around managing these types of substances. Indeed, it is disturbing (and, er… sobering) to once again see the only  substance I use the list – alcohol – be put in such a stark and negative light.

At some point a real conversation about drugs is going to occur in the United States – I just hope it is sooner rather than later as it will have a profound effect on effectively we can deal with the tragic situation we have around substance abuse this side of the border.

Fla. Court Tells Judges and Lawyers to “Unfriend” Each Other (the AP)

Always fascinating to see how different fields respond to social networking. In this case a Florida…

…committee ruled Nov. 17 that online “friendships” could create the impression that lawyers are in a special position to influence their judge friends.

This is a great example of how social networking can cause some professions to actually become less transparent and, I would argue, harms the long term credibility of the institution. Notice here that the committee isn’t ruling that judges and lawyers can’t be friends, they are ruling that it would be harmful if the public could see that they are friends. So, in essence, if being a friend compromises the judgment of a judge, we solve that by preventing the public from seeing that the conflict could exist, rather than dealing with the conflict. Weird.

The last line is priceless:

McGrady, who is sending a copy of the ruling to the 69 judges in his circuit, said this potential conflict of interest is why he doesn’t have a Facebook page.

“If somebody’s my friend, I’ll call them on the phone,” he said, chuckling.

Errr, right. Good to keep it all in the old boys network where those on the inside know where the conflict may lie, but there is not digital trail or map that might allow the public to be better informed… Oh, and you’re the last generation that will only “pick up the phone” so this solution has, at best, a 20 year shelf life to it.

The Killer App of 1900 by Glenn Fleishman in Publicola

As some readers know, I’m a big fan of historical examples that show we are experiencing similar pressures, transformations, evolutions as experienced in the past. Part of it is the historian in me, part of it is how it helps ease the minds of those concerned or intimidated by change. There are, occasionally, genuinely new things that appear under the sun – but often those of us interested in technology and social change are too quick to scream “This is new! It changes everything!” Moreover, it does a disservice to our efforts often making people more skeptical, resistant and generally conservative towards the perceived change. Still more importantly, the past often sheds light on how power and influence created by a new technology or system may diffuse itself – who will be the winners/losers and the resisters.

In this context this article is a priceless example of the type of writing I wish I did more of.

The Score: Advice to Young Composers by Annie Gosfield in the New York Times

While written as sounds advice for composers, this is (as the friend who sent it to me said) sounds advice for policy wonks or, in my opinion, bloggers as well. (It’s actually just sounds advice for life).

A couple of credos in the piece that I hope my work, and this blog lives by:

Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously: Hope that is evident in my writing style.

Be willing to put yourself and your music on the line: Try to do that everyday here on the blog.

Don’t fear rejection: Something a blog is really good at teaching you.

A couple of credos in the piece I know I struggle with:

Don’t assume you know what’s accessible to the audience and what isn’t: Although counter to what the piece says, I occasionally run into a friend who says “I had NO idea what you were talking about in X blog post.” It is crushing to hear – but also really good. I do want to challenge readers but I also want to be accessible. Do let me know if I ever get to a place where a newbie is going to be totally lost.

Details count: So, er, anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I have the occasional typo in a post, here or there… Blogging longish pieces four times a week is draining, and so I don’t proof as much as I could (plus it is hard to see one’s own errors). But I could do better.

Hope you enjoy these pieces as much as I did!

Some Thoughts on the Walrus Response

Here is a response to Jeremy Keehn (Senior Editor at the Walrus) thoughtful response to my post The Walrus, Fair Dealing, and the Culture of Journalism this morning.

A few leading points.

1) I’d like to echo Jeremy’s request, if there is a literary-loving Web 2.0 billionaire out there interested in endowing the Walrus, please click here.

2) While my original post refers to The Walrus, I definitely want to be clear – the challenge of not participating in the online link economy is endemic among main stream media publishers generally. Most main stream media never link away from their site (except, oddly, on their “blogs” which are somehow treated differently…)

At the risk of misrepresenting Jeremy (not my intention) I’m going to edit his piece down so as to respond to some specific arguments as to why the Walrus doesn’t link or cite in print. Worse still, I may make a suggestion or two.

First, in print:

It was more a question of how including that information would affect the flow of the narrative, and what readers needed to know for the quotation to have its intended effect. Insofar as I was making a conscious decision as an editor, I would have been asking myself whether mentioning eaves.ca bolstered the authority of the quotation or added narrative value. Ultimately, I concluded that David’s credentials were all readers needed to know. In hindsight, I might have chosen otherwise, in part because the quotation wasn’t a spoken one, and in part because this is a rare instance where the source actually ended up caring.

This I completely get. It is important that the piece read easily. Reading this I see how much the web has changed how I read – I look for “links” now even when reading a print edition of something. (Wow it is hard to have this discussion without sounding ungrateful for the quote – hoping that is still coming through – this is a discussion about the culture of journalism as it plays at out that Walrus, not about the quality or intentions of the Walrus)

Online linking:

David also asks in his post why The Walrus hasn’t linked to his blog in the online version of the story. “When The Walrus doesn’t link to others, it is a policy decision,” he writes. “They believe in the myth that they need to keep people on their website — which means they also believe in keeping their readers away from the very material that makes their stories interesting.”

I (guiltily) jumped to a conclusion there – should have led with more inquiry. Jeremy explains that this is because:

We don’t go in and insert links into our magazine pieces because we don’t have the resources, and because the decisions about what and where to link would be difficult and time-consuming to navigate, especially given that we rely on freelance writers, who might have opinions about what should be linked to or not. It’s certainly not policy.

However, this is where things become a little harder for me to decipher.

On the one hand the no-linking at the Walrus seems to be due to limited resources (this I understand and respect). However, tracking down and inserting the links into my blog for the webpages the Walrus piece references took me 45 minutes – and that was without the benefit of having the author on hand who mostly likely has them in their notes. An intern could find and insert the links into a piece in 30 minutes. This may still be too onerous but the benefit to readers feels significant. But this calculus becomes even easier if the Walrus simply asked authors to supply the links (the task would then drop to mere minutes). Moreover, the costs of consistency feel pretty low. People are unlikely to be upset of The Walrus over linking… they’ll just not click on them. Plus, The Walrus’s authors probably have the best sense of what is interesting and should be linked to… why not simply trust them?

On the other hand, the above sentence hints that the no-linking is also due to the fact that getting a clear consistent policy would be difficult – especially with so many freelance writers in play. I read this as saying that The Walrus is claiming it is better off not linking than having potentially inconsistent linking. Why not start simple with bare bones policy: Every time The Walrus quotes someone, and that quotation is available from an original source online, the author should endeavor to link to it. The great thing about being online is different than print. Omissions are easy and quick to fix. If the author misses some link, an intrepid reader may email The Walrus the link (especially if you ask them to) at which point an intern could add it.

There are advantages to this. Over time, by looking at The Walrus’s web stats the editorial staff will see what their readers click on, and so what they find useful and be sure to include more of those types of links in the future. The value add for readers might become significant, At the moment, the Walrus has no idea what its readers find interesting in the pieces they read other than what they say in comments (and far, far fewer people comment than click on links they like).

Finally, this should be applauded but is not a defense:

We do plenty of linking on our blogs, and the magazine’s Twitter feed (not to mention my own) is generally abuzz with links to and from other media.

Two thoughts: First what is the policy around linking on The Walrus blogs? And providing links in Twitter is great (I do like how The Walrus twitter account points to interesting pieces everywhere). The point here is that (online) readers have a world to explore in every article The Walrus publishes – if they are given a chance to explore it through hyperlinks – hyperlinks that are embedded in the text where their mice and eyes are at the moment of reading.

The Walrus, "Fair Dealing" & the Culture of Journalism

Last month, in its November/December issue, The Walrus magazine had an excellent piece by Gil Shochat on government, transparency and access to information entitled The Dark Country. (notice the hyperlink…) If you haven’t read the piece, go read it now. It is devastating in its analysis and absolutely dead on. We need radical reform around how we access government information – something we have been trying to begin to pioneer here in Vancouver – and this piece taps into the roots of that need. (The part on Abousfian Abdelrazikwhom Canadian public servants openly talked about as at risk of being assassinated by Sudanese Intelligence operatives – is particularly dark.)

I first heard about the piece when friends emailed and called me to say they enjoyed my quote. It was (and is!) great news to get. Great, because from the sounds of the quote it seemed like something I might write, was in context, and it is nice to be noticed by others for one’s thinking and advocacy.

It turns out that the quote is from a relatively long and quite popular blog post I wrote a few months back titled Open Data – USA vs. Canada in which I outline some theories regarding why open data and government transparency has gained more traction in the US than Canada. Specifically, about halfway through the piece I wrote:

The [Canadian] government’s data isn’t your, mine, or “our” data. It’s hers [the Queen’s]. Which means it is at her discretion, or more specifically, the discretion of her government servants, to decide when and if it should be shared.

Which brings me back to The Walrus. I’m thrilled that they included the above quote in their piece. I’ve been working hard to advocate for government transparency and open data, and so a quotation is both a nice acknowledgment of that work and a great way to reach a wider audience. However, why not link to my piece in the online edition? Or mention that it was published on eaves.ca in the print edition like Andrew Potter did in his Macleans column? (although no online link…)

There could be an argument – under copyright law – that to quote my piece under Fair Dealing (Fair Use for Americans), The Walrus should attribute the source (in this case, my blog). But even without a reference to Fair Dealing, there is something deeper, something about the culture of journalism, that would lead you to believe they would want to link.

One of the hallmarks of journalism has been its collaborative nature. Frequently, stories build on previous works. Discovering a scandal is often not the work of a single reporter, but the culmination of many peoples’ work. This is why I’ve always admired journalists’ willingness to attribute. Long before the Internet, there existed a “link economy” in the press, where reporters cited the work of those who came before them who had helped them break or uncover a story. Sometimes this was done grudgingly, but it was done irregardless.

The internet, and especially the blogosphere, has a similar phenomenon, often referred to as the aforementioned “link economy.” Bloggers and writers link to what others sites, knowing that may mean people click away from our website – but secure in the knowledge that if we send them somewhere interesting, they’ll be back for more. Remember the most viewed website in the world is dedicated to sending people to other sites; it’s called Google.

So let’s be clear, when The Walrus doesn’t link to others, it is a policy decision. They believe in the myth that they need to keep people on their website – which means they also believe in keeping their readers away from the very material that makes their stories interesting. This makes their website less interesting (and is why I don’t visit it – I visit websites with external links, ’cause I like to explore ideas — in both the literal and internet surfing sense).

So what richness did readers miss out on in this case? Well of course, none of The Walrus‘s readers even know that I wrote a piece that they could read with the click of a mouse. But beyond my own self-interest, there’s much more that could have been included:

  • The Globe piece containing a quote about detainees can be found here.
  • The Access to Information Act is referenced (and is central to the piece); it might be interesting to link to it.
  • James Travers, whose Hill Times piece entitled Conservative Prime Minister Harper’s highly-touted federal Accountability Act a recipe for more broken rules (phew!) also goes unmentioned and unlinked.
  • Reporter Stephen Maher does have his piece mentioned (“Ottawa Is Sending Me into a Black Rage”), along with its publication (Halifax’s Chronicle-Herald). However, one can’t fault The Walrus for not linking to them since… It doesn’t appear that the Chronicle-Herald keeps anything online after 2 weeks, and their library, which offers to help you find articles, has this for a webpage.
  • Also of interest is the report by the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Canadian Newspaper Association that shows we are behind Mexico, Pakistan and India in access to government information – no link again, although it can be found here. (And this was hard to find in Google/Internet terms.)
  • There’s more, but you get the point…

The point being, that if you don’t link to others, you are making it harder for your readers to delve deeper, and therefore to care more deeply about the subjects you’re writing about. In an online world, you are effectively acting as though all knowledge about the issue resides on your page. This is absurd. As a result, not linking to others feels not only like a violation of good journalism standards, and of the most basic codes of conduct on the internet, it’s a poor business decision.

This is because when you don’t link, others won’t link to you either. Consequently, you sit outside the conversation. As Taylor Owen and I wrote in Missing The Link (which we offered to The Walrus as the basis for a piece – though they declined):

The staff writers of The New York Times, while certainly talented, are not the beginning and end of news. Pretending that they are is laughable, and their customers know it. Consequently, simply recreating newspapers online won’t work. Americans may be interested in living in gated communities, but they don’t want to surf within them. Web pages that interlink with others are more likely to be visited because readers will know that in addition to the base content or analysis, they will also be pointed to interesting material, both within the site and outside. Isolated news pages will invariably remain just that—cut off.

And that sums up The Walrus‘s site – cut off. Which is sad, because Gil Shochat’s piece is completely brilliant.

Update 11:31am: Jeremy Keehn – senior editor at The Walrus (as well as very smart man, and someone I consider a friend) responds in this thoughtful post. Going to reflect on his comments – hope to have some intelligent to add in a bit.

New Policy Journal: The Public Policy and Governance Review

Last week saw the launch of a new biannual online journal called The Public Policy and Governance Review. Started by students and faculty from universities across Canada the journal seeks to inject some new ideas and thoughts into the public policy sphere.

I would argue that it already has.

Check out this paragraph from its “About Us” page.

The Public Policy and Governance Review is in the business of promoting ideas and is not interested in proprietary rights. We believe that authors deserve credit for their work and that using any intellectual material warrants referencing, but other than that, we hope that the ideas published in the PPGR disseminate well beyond the confines of this website. As such and as a matter of principle, the Public Policy and Governance Review uses a less-restrictive licensing agreement for publication than traditional copyright. We publish as much of the PPGR as possible under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivative Works license. This is a licensing agreement that relaxes some of the restrictions associated with traditional copyright and allows our readers to distribute material more easily. It allows authors’ works to be freely reproduced for non-commercial purposes as long as the work is not modified and attribution is maintained.

Take note – these are Masters of Public Policy and Governance students and they have chosen to use a Creative Commons license – not copyright – for their journal. Note that they WANT others to re-post and comment on the material on blogs and other sites. This is a journal interested in using the most modern technology and legal tools to do what all journals start off wanting to do: initiating interesting conversation and spreading ideas.

This alone should make senior public servants take notice. If you are a senior public servant and you think debates over copyright don’t matter to you… your next hire (and ultimately, your successor) thinks differently.

Two additional asides:

First, for real copyright geeks that are wondering, yes I actually think they should have allowed attributed derivative works… since, well, all works are derivative works of something – nothing is completely original – but, well, one step at a time I suppose.

Second, before the launch of the first edition of the Public Policy and Governance Review the editors sat down and interviewed me on the future of the public service. You can read the interview here (pdf).

My new mac – some thoughts for other PC users

As some of you know, I recently shifted from a PC to a Mac. It’s a big transition for me… I’ve used a PC all my life, so it is easy to say that I’m having a little (but not a ton) of culture shock.

I’ll be honest about the single best selling feature of the mac: Spotlight.

I do very few things on my computer. Mostly I write, I surf, and I email. A LOT of email. So first and foremost, having a computer where I can find my emails and documents easily is critical. When you’ve got over 70,000 emails you want to be able to search, well, neither Microsoft Outlook, any Windows desktop search engine I’ve ever seen, or even Google desktop (which essentially requires you to load a browser each time) is going to cut it.

I NEED to be able to find stuff quickly. Google has bred me with an expectation of instant results (not a slow churning solution). Maybe Windows 7 will get there, but I’ve given up waiting. My 5 year old thinkpad wasn’t going to last long enough for me to see.

Am I happy? Absolutely. One thing our Apple friends do well is design. I love the keyboard, the screen and pretty much everything physical about the machine. Moreover, the convergence of Mac & Windows software has made the transition relatively easy – I’d be frightened to think of how much time on my computer I spend on the browser, but it is a lot… so moving from Firefox to Firefox is pretty sweet.

That said, the transition hasn’t been perfect. There are several features on the Mac that have been frustrating, and even disappointing. For those thinking of making the leap I thought I let you know the rough parts; it shouldn’t dissuade you, just set some expectations that not everything in Macworld is peaches and cream. Of course, if some veteran users have solutions to these issues, I’ll be eternally grateful.

So here’s my list of 4 things I’d change on the Mac – some of these are so petty I’m almost embarrassed…

1. No “send to” email client option. One thing Windows has that I’ve not found on the Mac is the “Send To” folder. Drop any application in the Send To folder and when you right-click on a document you have the option of opening the document with that application. What I loved was being was being able to right-click on a document, send it to my email client and bingo! A new email was created with the document attached. Very productive and easy. Alas, no such luck in the Mac.

2. No “open container” option in spotlight. Yes, I love Spotlight AND… when the drop down menu is showing me a list of found items, why can’t I right-click on it and open the containing folder? Sometimes, I don’t know what document I’m looking for, but I do know it is co-located with a document I do know the title of… Just saying.

3. In Mail, you can’t drag an email to iCal to create an event. Best feature Outlook (and I presume Entourage) has that Mail and iCal don’t is the ability to turn an email into an event. I know that Mail has the funky – click on the date and it will create an event – but it rarely brings in the relevant information. In Outlook I simply dragged an email to the calendar and presto! I had an event in which the email contents were in the notes. That way I could easily copy all the relevant details and, had a ton of context I could quickly reference within my calendar.

4. Okay, so this one seems REALLY petty… but it strikes at something deeper, something important for PC users to know. I’m feeling a little annoyed that, in Mail, when I delete an email in my inbox the cursor always moves to the newer email regardless how the mail is sorted. In Outlook it always moved “down” (Which I had arranged to mean that it went to an older email). Small, I know, but it is driving me crazy when I’m dealing with my email. Of course, this is all part of what I understand to be a larger philosophical problem with Macs (and why I’ve never been an owner before) which is that the company is centered on the idea that it knows how you should use your computer better than you do… so customizing is limited. This is the biggest culture shift for PC users. Owning a Mac is like being in a gated community… its pretty and manicured, but you have to adhere to the community bylaws, or else…! Yes the Windows world has got serious medical issues (viruses), a generic corporate feel (Windows Themes) and a approach to planning that seems modeled after Houston (I say this with some affection) but you also had a lot more freedom to create trouble or solve things your way. At the moment, I’m welcoming my new overlord because it’s like my computer has been taken over by the Swiss! It’s efficient, but if I try to complain… well you get the point.

Pretty much everything else that I’m wrestling with. The way Alt-Tab works on the Mac or the fact that I can’t open press “command+F” to open the “File” menu are things that I know, in time, I’ll adjust to.

Articles I'm Digesting 10/09/2009

Here’s a few articles I’ve been reading that I’ve found particularly compelling.

Big Food vs. Big Insurance

by Michael Pollan  (via David B.)

This great piece talks about the secondary impact of health care reform – namely that if US Health Insurance companies have to insure every American they will suddenly care a great deal more about what Americans eat, as this is a major driver of healthcare costs. Money quote (the one David B sent me that got me reading):

“But these rules may well be about to change — and, when it comes to reforming the American diet and food system, that step alone could be a game changer. Even under the weaker versions of health care reform now on offer, health insurers would be required to take everyone at the same rates, provide a standard level of coverage and keep people on their rolls regardless of their health. Terms like “pre-existing conditions” and “underwriting” would vanish from the health insurance rulebook — and, when they do, the relationship between the health insurance industry and the food industry will undergo a sea change… Suddenly, every can of soda or Happy Meal or chicken nugget on a school lunch menu will look like a threat to future profits.”

Here’s a great example of a leverage point, Pollan shows how healthcare reform will shift policy alliances, power and money in Washington and could allow for a long awaited (and needed) reform of food policy. It’s a fascinating analysis and it shows how strategically the Obama administration is thinking. They know that if they can win this battle – even with an imperfect bill – they will be gaining powerful allies for the next few battles. Brilliant.

Twitter: “pointless babble” or peripheral awareness + social grooming?

by Danah Boyd

A few weeks ago the Globe continued its war on social media by publishing this piece about how 40.55% of tweets are babble. It’s the kind of analysis that is so poorly constructed one doesn’t even know where to start in rebutting it. I’d been thinking for a while to write some coherent rebuttal, but fortunately Danah Boyd has already written it.

Open Government Data Principles

This is one of the best and simplest distillations of guiding principles around how governments should treat data that I have seen to date. Simple, concise, short yet comprehensive, these principles should hang on the CIO’s office wall in every government department or ministry around the world. As per their request I’m trying to think of ways to improve it, if I come upon any, I’ll blog about it.

Brand new old idea: The GoC Public Servant as Knowledge Worker

By Douglas Bastien

I remember when I had a contract with the Privy Council Office looking at young people in the Public Service and how they might network together, I took out a book that talked about managing knowledge workers in government and thinking how curious it was that few people in government saw themselves as Knowledge Workers. And yet, how government sees and manages its employees doesn’t always align with how knowledge workers would expect to be managed.

Doublas Bastien piece is bang on in its description of the problem. It is also a deeply depressing read. Depressing because one is forced to confront that so many of the challenges the knowledge economy, technology and social change would pose to government were identified a decades ago. Our government can predict and HR challenges, but when it comes to managing one… that’s a different story. But we shouldn’t be surprised, we don’t promote managers in government,  we promote policy wonks, and so we don’t manage the problems, we issue policies to deal with it. Definitely read Douglas’ piece, and if you like it, consider going back into my archives and reading one of the post on Public Service Sector Renewal I’m most proud of.