social linkages online

Earlier, I mused about whether the inherent limit on human interaction group size would apply to online social networks or not. That limit is called “Dunbar’s Number” and is estimated to be ~150, based on observations of social networks among primates and then extrapolating to humans taking increased brainpower into consideration. An intriguing piece in the WSJ asks whether online social networks are still bound by Dunbar’s number or whether technological innovation might permit us to exceed it:

But there is reason to believe that the social-networking sites will enable their users to burst past Dunbar’s number for friends, just as humans have developed and harnessed technology to surpass their physical limits on speed, strength and the ability to process information.
Robin Dunbar, an Oxford anthropologist whose 1993 research gave rise to the magical count of 150, doesn’t use social-networking sites himself. But he says they could “in principle” allow users to push past the limit. “It’s perfectly possible that the technology will increase your memory capacity,” he says.

The question is whether those who keep ties to hundreds of people do so to the detriment of their closest relationships — defined by Prof. Dunbar as those formed with people you turn to when in severe distress.

The problem here is the definition of the word “relationship”. Dunbar’s definition of “closest” is just one of many possible ones, and the various definitions might well overlap. But does that mean that business relationships are excluded from Dunbar’s limit? If so, then you might expect to see many more contacts on LinkedIn, which caters to a business networking model, than on Facebook which is primarily stalker heaven. LinkedIn is approaching critical mass in terms of network effect; RWW found over 80% of their business contacts already using it, for example.

There are surely other models one could employ to map relationships: blogrolls, chat client lists, twitter fans/friends, etc. I think any one of these – or a weighted combination of all of them – would be good data sets to see whether Dunbar’s number truly holds online or not.

skynet ascendant: Xohm

xohmIn three years, internet access is going to be so pervasive that our modern expectation of finding a wifi hotspot here and there will seem quaint. Sprint’s new WiMax service (dubbed Xohm) promises cable/dsl-level access speeds anywhere, and it will be rolled out in three test markets in spring 2008. Ars Technica went for a cruise on the Chicago River with Sprint and Motorola to test drive it, and were wowed:

The results were impressive. The first time we ran the test, we got 2425Kbps down and 1474Kbps up with a 99ms ping, with the S.S. Summer of George cruising down the river 30 feet below street level. We hit Speedtest again after the boat tied up, and the results were even better: 3229Kbps down and 1500Kbps up with a 70ms ping.

Both the performance and experience were far superior to Verizon’s EV-DO service. The absolute best I was able to squeeze out of EV-DO was 1253Kbps/674Kbps with a 179ms latency—and that was a best-case scenario. Speeds were more typically in the 500-700Kbps range.

Speed aside, the browsing experience was much different than any other mobile broadband I’ve used. Unlike other wireless services, which feel “laggy” and offer a markedly different experience than a wired connection, the WiMAX demo was more akin to DSL and cable. Latency was good, and, as the number indicated, speeds were comparable to a decent DSL connection.

What is even more exciting about this is that Xohm will be priced to compete against cable and dsl, and will also be more open about service contracts etc than traditional cell phone-based access plans:

Unlike 3G wireless services, which are targeted at mobile users needing a quick broadband fix, Sprint plans to take on the DSL/cable duopoly with Xohm. Sprint spokesperson John Polivka told me that pricing would be competitive with DSL and cable, although the exact numbers have not yet been determined.

There’s also a strong open access component to Xohm. Although consumers will be getting the service from Sprint or Clearwire, they’ll be able to use the hardware and applications of their choice on the network. Polivka said that there wouldn’t be fixed-length, cellular-style contracts either. Instead, consumers will be able to subscribe to the service for as long as they want, using hardware that they purchase themselves.

However, thats just scratching the surface. The first products using WiMax will mostly be laptop cards, but the technology is being designed with the embedded market in mind. That means cell phones, music players, digital cameras, printers… pretty much any consumer device could in principle have perpetual access to the Net. How this will transform user interfaces and usage is anybody’s guess; it’s a truly transformative technology.

Darren Rowse

I took a online quiz to see which web celebrity I am most similar, and the answer turned out to be Darren Rowse, of ProBlogger fame:

You are like Darren Rowse. You are relatively mild mannered, confident in how you operate and choose not to “rock the boat”. Your ego does not flair often. Instead, you choose to assist other bloggers as much as possible. In some cases, you may find it to be your mission in life. You do not participate in a large amount of social networking and if you do, you’re not particularly aggressive about “friending” people. To you, it is a waste of time that could be used for more productive things.

Intrigued, I went to Rowse’s site and it is definitely a resource worth keeping an eye on. I’ve added it to my feeds.

Google reader adds RSS search; but I want more


search is finally in Google Reader. Now you can find that that apricot recipe you came across a few months ago and now have a craving for. Or perhaps you’d like to search for “ipod” so that you can read at once all the posts in your subscriptions that mention today’s announcements.

Search lets you use keywords to find items in your subscriptions (if you’re looking to search all blogs, give Blog Search a try). If you subscribe to someone’s shared items, it’ll search those too.

OK, I’ve only been using Google Reader for two weeks, but the very first thing I noticed was the lack of a search function. It seems obvious that a Google service would have some sort of search capability, but it just wasn’t there. It’s a welcome feature addition, though now I’d like to see Reader add a storage quota and save headlines indefinitely like Gmail does (and allow users to pay for upgraded storage as they already do for Gmail and Picasa). Ultimately Reader should be integrated directly into Gmail with a unified interface.

What would be tremendously useful would be to make a given search public, and publish a RSS feed of its own. This could then be subscribed to like any other feed or fed in Yahoo Pipes, Twitter, or other APIs.

And while I’m wishing for ponies, can we also have a direct “Blog this” button for each headline, right next to “email this”, which integrates directly into Blogger and copies the tags over to the Labels?

welcome to the social

As you may have noticed from my sidebar, I’ve recently joined Facebook. In a short time I’ve come to realize just how effective it is at managing your social relationships; I’ve also joined LinkedIn which is the professional equivalent. I find that the two services complement each other nicely rather than competing.

The great advantage of these services is that you create a walled garden for yourself and thus retain total control over your communication. Facebook provides extremely granular control over privacy on a per-contact basis so you really are able to fine-tune just who can contact you and who you want to stay in touch with.

Tangentially related to this is a recent dust-up between several high-profile “web 2.0” personalities that makes for interesting reading. It started with Robert Scoble, who created a three-part video essay provacatively titled “Why Mahalo, TechMeme, and Facebook are going to kick Google’s butt in four years“. Scoble is obsessed with the idea that search engine optimization (SEO) is poisoning the well of search and that adding the “social” element will magically improve relevance. Dave Winer had a fairly succinct rebuttal, Danny Sullivan took issue with Scoble’s explicit equating of SEO with spam, and Rand Fishkin steps through Scoble’s arguments and fact-checks it to oblivion.

Overall, I came away from the fracas convinced that social networking is not some magic bullet and the problems of “how do I find information” and “who do I want to interact with” to be wholly separate ones. I like a walled garden for my identity-driven personal and professional interactions, but I also want to wander in the wild when need be. It’s the same reason I am skeptical of “personalized search” services like Google’s own “Web History” initiative. It’s not the privacy issues that worry me, but rather the imposed limitation on what my search results are based on what my search results were in the past. Why should I assume that for a given search, the most relevant results will necessarily be related to the searches I previously made? Presumably I search for something based on a need for new information I do not currently possess.

If anything, the onus on the user is to craft a better query; to that end Google offers an advanced set of search operators that provide tremendous power and flexibility. Overall, every search is unique, and no amount of personalization or social networking is going to change that fact. If anything, the right approach is to allow a search to stimulate new searches; ie ask new questions rather than spoonfeed me old answers.

Linux on Windows

I was somewhat bemused by the story of a judge mandating a hacker convicted of a felony to use only Windows rather than Linux:

Scott McCausland, who used to be an administrator of the EliteTorrents BitTorrent server before it was shut down by the FBI, pleaded guilty in 2006 to two copyright-related charges over the uploading of Star Wars: Episode III to the Internet. As a result, he was sentenced to five months in jail and five months’ home confinement.

McCausland–who also goes by the name “sk0t”–has since been released from jail, but on Tuesday he reported on his blog that the terms of his sentence meant he would have to install Windows if he wanted to use a computer during his probation.

Now, I don’t want to hijack my own post by commenting on the issue of whether such a prohibition is legally defensible; though one might reasonably wonder where the line can be drawn. Mandating an operating system strikes me as on the intrusive side of things, regardless of where you fall on felons’ rights. What struck me more about this was the utter toothlessness of such a prohibition. It’s not like Windows and Linux are oil and water, or matter and antimatter. It’s quite possible for the two to co-exist, and even play host to one another.

For example, you could set up VMWare to run Linux as a virtual machine on Windows (the VMWare client is absolutely free). Or, you can setup your machine to multi-boot into Linux; the Wubi project makes doing so as painless as “installing” a program under Windows with no need to mess around with disk partitions or boot sectors or whatever. You can even run the Linux kernel natively within Windows with no software emulation or multi-boot required (more details here on setup). If it’s just the Linux environment you want, and don’t care about the apps, you can even run Cygwin and vi to your heart’s content.

From reading the guy’s blog entry, he’s adopting full victim posture, probably for the sake of his pending lawsuit (to which I have some sympathy, I must confess). But seeing as he’s experienced with Linux already, I doubt for a moment he isn’t aware of these alternatives. Probably it’s wiser from his perspective to protest the briar patch than to show his hand.

Incidentally, if you’re itching to try Linux, the Ubuntu distribution comes highly, highly, highly recommended. Most of the methods described above standardize on Ubuntu.

speed reader

I am astonished. In just two days of using Google Reader I’m now following over 60 blogs, and have read over 300 articles. All of this in much less than half the time I usually spent browsing the web. The old paradigm of manually surfing somewhere and then surfing somewhere else seems so obsolete, because you never know when there’s new content. If it’s a blog that updates rarely (ie, below the 1 post/day threshold then you might well waste a trip. But with the feed, you only need visit when there really is content to be seen. What’s more, you know the title and an excerpt at minimum so you can also decide immediately whether you want to see more or would rather skip right over it. This is where the time and efficiency improvements come into play – you only end up reading content that is fresh and relevant. I’ve added subscriptions to many smaller blogs with great voices that I always intended to read but never had time; now it is trivial to stay abreast of them.

I briefly became enamored of the idea that blogs “should” publish their full post text in their feed, but am now indifferent. True, it’s easier to read the whole post from within Reader (and saves some time too), but if not, its easy to just click on the full post link (assuming it interested you enough). The page will open in a new tab. This way you also get to appreciate the diversity of blog design out there instead of staying insulated in the sterile Reader environment; plus if its a site where you comment frequently you will have to click through anyway. In fact using Reader makes it easier to stay involved with comment threads because you can subscribe to a thread directly.

Of course, clicking through to the full post also helps out the blogger you’re reading, as you will then be exposed to their ads etc. So there is financial incentive to keep your feed limited to excerpts. But blogger beware; if your excerpts are dull or not properly representative of your post’s interesting-ness, then no one will bother to click through. Using excerpts in your feed raises the bar because there’s extra work involved for me to click through to you. This is an incentive to quality writing. I think it would be better for the internet as a whole if everyone published excerpts instead of fulltext feeds, not just for these advantages but also because it removes the incentive for embedding ads in the feed itself. I’d rather my feeds be truncated but ad free than be full but interspersed with sponsorship. bundle linkrolls

The grandfather of social bookmarking sites is, which basically brought “tagging” mainstream (along with Technorati). Most people I know who use the service end up with unwieldy tag clouds, however, because it’s often hard to enforce a self-discipline on what tags you assign. I’ve spent a lot of time manually pruning my tags but there are still plenty on my tag list that are redundant or obsolete.

There is an option to “bundle” your tags – essentially, tagging a group of tags, to help you organize things better. However, bundles at present are only visible to the user, and do not have a dedicated URL or RSS feed like individual tags do. Using the “+” operator to search for multiple tags, ie, functions as an AND operator, whereas to simulate a bundle you’d need an OR equivalent that does not support. As a result, if you want to add a linkroll to your site that only shows tag from a single bundle, you’re out of luck.

However, there is a workaround, albeit a clumsy one: create “container” tags. Then you must manually tag all items in the bundle with the container tag. After doing this, you will be able to access your bundle using the container tag, and can create customized linkrolls accordingly. For example, I created the “2008” container tag for all my tags related to the Presidential candidates.

One caveat: try to avoid naming your container tags identically to the bundle. You can prefix the container tags with the “@” symbol to keep them distinct, or name them entirely differently. This is so that if/when in the near future improves support for bundles there won’t be any namespace collisions between your tags and your bundles. Once that day comes you can simply delete all the container tags if you so wish.

Alas, there still is no way to create a tag cloud from a single bundle, so that still awaits the team’s attention.

RSS-istance is futile

I’ve managed to avoid using feed readers for years, but reading wordpress-maven Matt’s post today about switching to Google Reader from Bloglines suddenly made me realize just how much time I waste in the mechanics of web surfing. I just spent the better part of two hours populating Reader with my links and I am already blown away at how much more efficient this is going to be. I literally will be able to do twice as much surfing in half the time. Most of the time saving productivity increase comes from the unified interface; everything is in one place and I can rapidly scan headlines to see what i really want to read. Most blogs helpfully put the whole post into the feed, as well – as do comics like XKCD. And the interface is the same as Gmail, including the ability to “tag” a link with multiple categories and the dynamic interface which means no lag. This is like a revolution. A revelation. Both.

I’m not pleased about investing further into Google. I don’t like all my eggs in one basket, but at least it’s trivial to export my OPML file if I decide to jump ship. In the interim, though, this is incredible.

And whats even cooler is that I am going to setup RSS feeds for searches on PubMed – so I’ll be able to stay up to date on my work as well as my play. Maybe this is the kick in the pants that I needed to get Reference Scan going again…

the end of the OS

I think that ten years from now, when we look back and wonder where the extinction of the desktop computer and operating system combo began, this news will be identified as one of the seeds:

Javascript creator and Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich has revealed a new project called IronMonkey that will eventually make it possible for web developers to use IronPython and IronRuby alongside Javascript for interactive web scripting.

The IronMonkey project aims to add multilanguage functionality to Tamarin, a high-performance ECMAScript 4 virtual machine which is being developed in collaboration with Adobe and is intended for inclusion in future versions of Firefox. The IronMonkey project will leverage the source code of Microsoft’s open source .NET implementations of Python and Ruby, but will not require a .NET runtime. The goal is to map IronPython and IronRuby directly to Tamarin using bytecode translation.

A plugin for IE will also be developed. The upshot of this is that Python and Ruby programming will become available to web applications run through the browser, on the client side. Look at how much amazing functionality we already enjoy in our web browsers thanks to Web 2.0 technology, which is AJAX-driven (ie, javascript). Could anyone back in 1996 imagine Google Maps? Hard-core programming geeks who understand this stuff better than I do should check out Jim Hugunin’s blog at Microsoft about what they have in mind; it’s heady stuff. But fundamentally what we are looking at is a future where apps are served to you just like data is, and your web browser becomes the operating system in which they run. I can’t even speculate about what this liberation from the deskbound OS model will mean, but it’s not a minor change.