Aug 17, 2009

Ontology Overrated

Maybe a netizen residing closer to the hump in the bell curve would surf porn, or sports, or something else, but it was a day that might have been in 2007 when I found myself Googling "ontology." That ought to make me an outlier, to use the term Malcolm Gladwell has popularized in his newest best-seller, somebody well outside the hump in the curve, someone out along the fringe.

So be it. I've given up trying to conform, so when I went looking for ontology I didn't really care if that was weird, in fact the weirder the better.

Anyway among the early pages of results was a title that caught my eye, Ontology Is Overrated. (I just looked and as of this moment it's at the top of page two.) Well, this suited me right down to the ground, as my grandmother might have said, so I went-a-looking.

Clay Shirky had written an essay, a blog entry I suppose, although this was before I had any idea what a blog is, pointing out that we humans can't help trying to categorize stuff, or make them fit into ontologies. He talked about how digital is different, and rather than go refresh my memory as to exactly how, I will leave it (as my lazy and/or smart professors used to say) as an exercise for the student.

Suffice to say it opened my eyes. I had been spending lots of time working as an editall in the Open Directory Project, aka DMOZ, and in particular wondering about what might be the best way to organize different categories. Then here comes Shirky, daring to suggest that one reason we're having such trouble with the answer if that we've been asking the wrong question.

Well, this is exactly my cup of tea. I started reading more of Shirky's stuff to find that he had been a busy boy indeed. Calling him prolific is practically like saying snow is sort of white. But, glutton for punishment that I am, I read tons of his essays and finally wrote him an email.

Now, some people who get emails from the public at large must despair of it, and wish the writers would go away. Maybe Shirky feels that way at times, but for whatever reason on this occasion he responded promptly.

After my enthusiastic praise for his ideas and mentioning my work with DMOZ, I had asked if he could recommend any other reading on how digital is changing categorization. After thanking me for my nice comments, he added that I might find Eveything Is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger instructive and enjoyable.

Since I recognized Weinberger as one of the four authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, this started to seem like one of those converging plot points where the music starts rising, only instead of dunh-dunh-dunh like Jaws it was more like birds tweeting and the sun is shining a la Disney. I'm a sucker for stuff that comes my way from more than one place, so I rushed off to get Miscellaneous. Read it, loved it, felt all in-the-know since it was brand new, and more about it another time.

Bonus breadcrumbs: David Weinberger's main blog is Joho the Blog. Shirky's new book, Outliers, is on my nightstand. You may hate sports metaphors but if I say it's in the on-deck circle, can you forgive me? I bought this one, and it will be batter up once I've finished all the library books I have to return. And, I may be a sucker for lots of stuff, but as ZZ Top said, I'm a Fool For Your Stockings. Great beat, I give it a 99.

Aug 14, 2009

Les Paul

A gifted guitarist and inventor died yesterday at the age of 94.

His electric guitar, manufactured by Gibson as the Les Paul model, has been a favorite of rock and blues guitarists for half a century. His recordings with wife Mary Ford were best-sellers in the early 1950s, and the Internet is full of tributes to his life and work. The obituary from Rolling Stone Magazine called him "the most influential rock guitarist ever - even though he was only tangentially involved in rock."

For twenty years, I hosted a radio show where we played records by Les Paul and Mary Ford almost every day, big hits like The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise. Then one day I found an LP in the station library called Chester and Lester, which paired Les Paul with Chet Atkins on a session from 1976. Funny, impromptu, two seasoned pros kidding each other on open mics while they talked about what they were going to play next, great stuff. It sold well to country fans but was mostly old standards.

To my regret, I didn't save a copy from my radio days. Then last summer Marie and I made a pilgrimage to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, where Les Paul is among the honorees right along with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. It turns out they sell CDs by hall of fame artists and I was able to get Chester and Lester. All right!

One day in 1986, an album came to the station from Atlantic Records called Play It Again, Joe, with Joe Bushkin. Always a sucker for liner notes, I checked this one to discover that the producer was none other than Les Paul.

Now, if you think Les Paul's name is less well-known than he deserved, try dropping Joe Bushkin's name and see how far you get. Loved by musicians, invisible to the public, no hits. But this album had a great sound, and the liner notes by Les Paul helped to explain why. Going the opposite route from the innovative multi-tracking and overdubbing that made him famous, for this project he recorded everything all at once, without any dubbing except the strings (added in a second session), even the piano and vocal. What an eye-opener, and an ear-opener.

His enthusiastic essay from the line notes was a breadcrumb to be treasured, a generous genius revealing his techniques to anyone who happened along. I read those few paragraphs over and over, every time I played the record. Cuts like Gershwin's Love Is Here to Stay and One For My Baby (And One More for the Road), sounding as realistic as anything you could imagine. Later I put those techniques into effect the best I could when I produced my own demos.

The record has been out of print for years, but today I found 15 used copies for sale at Amazon. The CD version apparently combines Play It Again, Joe with another album called The Road to Oslo.

Bob Edwards' radio show on XMPR is partly to blame for inspiring this blog to begin with. This morning on the way to work I heard him re-airing his April 2008 interview with Les Paul. I happened to hear it on its first airing and was delighted to hear it again. What a wonderful human being, all his humanity and humor coming through despite the crackle in his voice at the age of 93. Thanks, Bob, and by the way, how do you pick so many topics that I really, really enjoy?

Aug 12, 2009

Selling less of more

The thing about breadcrumbs...sometimes the birds eat 'em, or sometimes a well-meaning soul brooms them away. I can't remember now what led me to The Long Tail but it was probably a capsule review, either in print or online.

BTW that link goes to a YouTube promotional video for the book from the UK. Really tells the story in less than two minutes. I went looking for an image of the powerlaw curve that appears endlessly in the book and thought the video was even better.

The idea of the book is in the subtitle - Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. Author Chris Anderson says traditional retail focuses on hits, selling the most units possible of the best-selling items. Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes are examples of businesses getting a surprising portion of their revenues, like a third or half, from non-hits.

Huge inventories that peek in every niche and cranny can be offered as easily as the shelf-space-limited greatest hits selections of bricks-and-mortar stores. Purely digital merchandisers like iTunes have it easiest, but online purveyors of hard goods can stock enormous centralized warehouses, print/create on demand, or simply broker a connection between widely scattered owners or manufacturers and would-be customers.

Hence a company called Ecast supplies bars with digital jukeboxes "stocking" 10,000 albums. Compare to the hundred or so you might find on a regular jukebox and you get the idea. I love Anderson's story of how he was fooled when asked by Ecast CEO Robbie Vann-Adibe to guess how what percentage of those albums sold at least one track per quarter. Anderson knew he was being set up but played along. Traditional retailing suggested 20%, so he guessed 50% just to be wild and crazy. Turned out the answer was 98%.

Curious about how many titles are stocked by Wal-Mart, the nation's biggest music retailer, versus iTunes? Or the number of articles in the Encyclopedia Brittanica as compared to Wikipedia? The answers are in the book. it's important stuff for business people (and for those like me who are simply curious about what the heck is going on) and enormously entertaining.

This is just the latest in a series of books I've stumbled onto starting with that Bob Edwards radio interview of a few years ago. I tried to think of some concept that ties them together, no matter how loosely. I guess it's my compulsive need to pull order from disorder, to see breadcrumbs even if the sidewalk is bare.

I came up with New Connections, since so many of these modern ideas seem to relate to how people are finding each other in new, digitally-enabled ways. I even made a website on that title, but it's not on the Internet...yet. In it I summarize five books and one incredible web site, called The Cluetrain Manifesto. All aboard...

A lot of these ideas seem counter-intuitive. Acting on them suggests a competitive advantage for those who like to succeed, and don't we all? OTOH the people who cling to "the way we've always done it" are like the guy whose company inspired him to coin the phrase "cluetrain," at least according to Wikipedia. He said the cluetrain stopped there four times a day for ten years and they never took delivery.

Breadcrumb to go: The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki. Referenced in The Long Tail and one I'll plan to read.

Aug 10, 2009

Follow the crumbs

I'm reading The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, the latest in a string of non-fiction books that started...well, I'm not sure when.

As a musician (and a former radio announcer with a jazz show) I'd always disdained talk radio. I figured that on the radio, anything but music was a waste of time. But having XM and hearing that Bob Edwards was coming on, having been unceremoniously dismissed from NPR, I thought I'd give
XMPR a try. Might have been day two or three of listening when I caught him interviewing Malcolm Gladwell on his new book, Blink. Something clicked in my brain and it was like a reset button back to 1966, before I discovered drugs and alcohol. I drove straight to the nearest Barnes and Noble and bought the book, and one thing led to another.

Which is a way of saying the breadcrumbs seemed to appear before me. My curiosity led me down the oddest paths. Book after book, website after website, unable to stop but not wanting to...and yet wondering just why I felt compelled to pursue ideas with, as Frank Zappa might have termed it, No Commercial Potential. At least for me, a 50-something bookkeeper struggling to stay alive in a crashing economy. I mean, so what if I think Gladwell has some Neat Ideas. Does anyone really care?

And then this week I had an insight. Imagine that, insight. I guess there are still a few brain cells left that didn't succumb to the onslaught of days gone by. And the insight was this, with thanks to Chris Anderson and his wonderful book - that I do what I do because it's who I am. Whether it has a tremendous practical application or none whatsoever is simply irrelevant.

The pages of The Long Tail are helping me see that the digital age brings us to a point where we can be creators, and not just consumers. In my "day job" I may push a broom, or move billions of dollars around the world, or something in between...doesn't matter. If my passion is butterscotch, or hopscotch, or just plain hops...then that is what matters for me, and not the answer to the classic "And what do you do?"

So now I'm following the breadcrumbs without peering backwards and wondering what the heck I think I'm doing. Posts about some great books and web pages and the ideas therein will be forthcoming from time to time...comments, corrections, and suggestions welcome.