Interconnected

All posts made the week commencing Sunday 6 Oct., 2002:

Incidentally. Twice in the last two days I've looked at the menubar-equivalent searching for the time instead of looking at my phone (not wearing a watch). First, the page header of the newspaper. Second, next to the barcode on the back of a book.

Although I've not yet read anything that defines my London, and even though if you ask me I can't articulate what it is about London I feel is most fundamental (and believe me I've tried), whether it's the pulsing flow of people, or the honeycombness of every room, or the fact horizons - social and geographical - are claustrophobic, like in the early days of the universe before the timecones had merged or more like the planet of the Little Prince, although I don't know this I do know that this property of the city is psychogeographical in nature, and what I want to know is: Where are the songlines of the internet? Where's the poetry? We build so much, but the spirituality is inherited from another age. This soul we have is inappropriate to the age of hypertext.

Look. This isn't a collection of computers. This isn't IP and RDF. I'm talking network layer eight. I'm looking into a mirror and seeing the world. Our limbic systems can hook like velcro in a dimension where distance isn't there. We're being held aloft by the strongest stratum the rhizome of humanity has ever created, and where are our monuments? Who is working our miracles? Give me fairy tales, give me myth. Pride. Wonder. Awe. So give us visions. Let us construct cathedrals.

My dentist hypnotised me today, very strange. It's possible that the large number of personal recommendations he gets is due to post-hypnotic suggestion.

Another Mac OS X app: iStorm is an ultra-simple tool to collaborate over your local network, based on Apple's zero-configuration network protocol, Rendezvous.

The shoutability thread continues with two comments [by email]:

"Isn't posting a message on a blog sort of like a shouted equivalent of email? Many people can "wander into range of the message" without being targetted by the speaker". --Tyrethali Ansrath

"This suggests that mailing lists are shoutable?" --Clay Shirky

It comes down to what my definition of a message being shoutable was: that somebody new could listen in without the system being changes. And yes, I admit, I'd forgotten about mailing lists. Which just goes to show that metaphors don't really work and the concept of "shouting" doesn't map across to email very well.

Still interesting though. A mailing list introduces a new break point, that of instead of transmitting a message to a recipient, it's instead transmitted to a recipient reference. The reference is what allows a list of actual recipients, processings, adding and changing without altering the system. It adds the extra axis that allows the email's original recipient list to be divorced from the distance of the shout. It's yet another referencing or abstraction point in the chain: The email address being a me reference allows addresses to be collected, duplicated and sold. Adding a reference to the email address allows a number of addresses to be bundled up under a single mailing list. All the references appear to be going to one direction here, away from the listener. On the web the references go away from the speaker: web page addresses (URLs) are the equivalent of email addresses. The uber-aggregators, weblogs, are the equivalent of mailing lists.

Which brings me on to Tyrethali's point. A weblog does indeed strike me as a shouting medium, and even more it feels like an evolution of the mailist list. Okay, but first, here's where I'm coming from:

I'm thinking about how media transform. Television was radio with pictures until it understood the new properties of the medium and became true to itself. Maybe: A mailing list was just like an email with lots of people in the To header until it found its true form and became -- well, what? And here's where I'm thinking weblog. A weblog extends the idea that the recipient list is mutable and makes the big change that a listener is by default outside the shouting range. A way of testing this would be to see whether very early weblog entries were much like round-robin emails.

Although that's not really true. The direction (the axis goes from speaker to listener) of references is opposite for email and the www. As an aside: I wonder whether it's possible to look at a medium and systematically derive where other abstraction points could be and what properties they might have?

A Mac OS X input plugin, Cocoa Gestures, adds configurable support for gestures - drawing shapes with your cursor instead of clicking a button - to many applications, including Mail and Chimera [via Mac Net Journal].

Ben Hammersley on meme hubs: "If we can use the same theories to think about meme propagation as we can about viral epidemics, in that the propagation follows a scale-free network, I think we can add another level to it: transformational hubs. A node that transforms the medium in which the meme is propagating will immediately become a hub. If I write about a web-meme in a newspaper, it changes the medium, and the newspaper becomes a hub". More of a wormhole I think, because media aren't completely different but just very far apart. Think intercontinental airports and disease spread.

From Real Hacking Rules!, a speech given at Def Con 10, the hacker's conference: "But the game of building and cracking security, managing multiple identities, and obsessing over solving puzzles is played now on a ten-dimensional chess board. Morphing boundaries at every level of organizational structure have created a new game. In essence, hacking is a way of thinking about complex systems. It includes the skills required to cobble together seemingly disparate pieces of a puzzle in order to understand the system; whether modules of code or pieces of a bigger societal puzzle, hackers intuitively grasp and look for the bigger picture that makes sense of the parts. So defined, hacking is a high calling. [...] In addition to computer hackers, forensic accountants (whistleblowers, really), investigative journalists ("conspiracy theorists"), even shamans are hackers because hacking means hacking both the system and the mind that made it. [...] It is abstract thinking at the highest level, practical knowledge of what's likely, or might, or must be true, if this little piece is true, informed by an intuition so tutored over time it looks like magic". Yes.

"Browsing the books on a million subjects I learn paragraph snippets about the metaphor of money through the ages, the domestication of the sunflower, the role of smell in Roman law. The mention of smell highlights the only sense that remains, the musky scent of pages turned by my fingers, and more than ever I have the sensation of meandering through a Palace of Memory". There's a new Upsideclown up today, one of mine: Trees of Knowledge, of words, ideas and the British Museum.

So I was banging on about properties of media the other day and mooted something called shoutability claiming that talking had this property and email didn't. Reader Stefano Artesi rightly called me on this: "Think of sending a message to every address in your contact list. Or, like spambots do, you grab addresses on the net and send to them. What did you mean?"

Okay, I'm kind of new to media studies so this is all by gut feeling, but I'll try and explain what I mean.

"Shoutability" has two facets.

The first is that a single message can be effortlessly sent to more than one person. This isn't the same as duplicating a message and sending again, because the message could change -- it must be the *same* message being broadcast. Email, it seems to me, sends a message once for each person on the distribution list. Whereas shouting itself, or television, the message is transmitted once regardless of how many receivers there are.

Secondly it feels that the broadcast itself has to be independent of the listeners, such that the range is specified in distance or volume. This has two effects, both of which fall under the property of shoutability for me:

  • If the properties of the message are content and targets (who the sender is pointing the message at), for the message to truly be one-to-many the message properties should not change at all whether than many is ten people or one hundred. Rather it should be some other property (the volume of shouting, say) that is varied to change that.
  • Because a one-to-many message mustn't explicitly state individual listeners, a listener may move into range of a message without having to tell the broadcaster.

This last is what shoutability really comes down to. The ability for an extra listener to receive the same message as other listeners without changing the existing system at all.

Queue theory and the National Health Service; the application thereof as a way of reducing waiting list times. There are two types of ways of moving people through a queue: push, and pull.

"In a push system, transferring patients from one step of the process to the next is the responsibility of the earlier part of the process. They will 'push' the patient to the next stage. For instance, GPs 'push' urgent referrals to cancer units. Cancer units 'push' patients requiring specialist radiotherapy to cancer centres. [...] The trouble is that patient flow stops when it reaches a bottleneck where queues and waiting lists (backlog) build up."

Bottlenecks come in two varieties, process and functional. The two tricks to reducing waiting list are to redesign the process such that both push and pull are present in the system - I'll get to that in a second - and that bottlenecks aren't caused by inspectors. Needing people to inspect forms is a process bottleneck and not in the critical path. So what's pull?

"In a pull system, the bottleneck governs the rate that patients flow through the whole process. In this system it is the responsibility of the later parts of the process to pull patients towards them by asking for the work when they have the capacity to do it. [...] One non-healthcare example of a pull system is the use of chevrons on motorways. The rule is to keep two chevrons between you and the car in front. Therefore all cars go at the rate of the slowest car but if that car speeds up so will the whole system."

So pull is a way of making sure that your queue goes as fast as the bottleneck (ie, that the bottleneck itself isn't causing more bottlenecks, for instance shortage of beds at other previously fine stages of the process), and ensuring that any speed-ups you make to the process immediately cascade and are felt everywhere.

So far so good. This information, by the way, is taken from the NHS Modernising Agency Improvement Guides. They're PDFs. The particular document I've been referring to is Managing Capacity and Demand [HTML version], by Paul Zollinger Read, a leading light in NHS queue theory. (Thanks Andrew for pointing me that way.) In that document you'll also find a dice game to model queue systems, examples and ideas on how to change your systems.

Where it gets interesting is where push/pull is put into practice. Have a look at another Modernising Agency document: Improving the flow of emergency admissions [HTML version].

The traditional process to get people out of hospital is push based. Once they've had their treatment, they're lie in a bed until they're fit enough to go home. At that point they're pushed into a discharge lounge (another area of the hospital) to hang around for a couple of days before they go home. Beds in wards, incidentally, are an enormous bottleneck and always running out.

"Redbridge Hospital (Redbridge Health Care NHS Trust) changed its working philosophy to a 'pull' rather than 'push' system where staff working in the discharge lounge proactivity recruit new patients. Use of the lounge increased by 50% freeing up beds in the wards more quickly."

These are important and serious numbers, affecting throughput of patients (and increasing care) without spending more money -- just changing the process. The story behind this:

There was previously no incentive for nurses to move patients to the discharge lounge. The wards are full, so moving relatively healthy patients who require little work out frees up beds that are immediately going to be filled with still-sick high maintenance, high work patients. So in the traditional process there's an actual incentive for the nurses to tighten the bottleneck and slow the process.

Pull stops this. It's the duty of the discharge lounge nurses to move people away from the functional bottleneck and free up valuable resources. The bottleneck instead becomes the number of nurses available which is a fixable problem by employing more nurses. And that's the magic of queue theory.

Now there are applications here, outside the health industry I'm sure of it. And one day I'll figure out what they are.

Nice statistic in this BBC News article on the Nigeria money-moving scam (you've probably received the spams -- you'll get a cut of the how-ever-many million dollars if you send only a little money over to help pay the bribes to get the cash out of Africa): "NCIS estimates that up to five Americans are sitting in hotel lobbies in London everyday waiting to meet people connected with this con".

I'm trying to make the parse trees of sentences in the game of today that I'm playing that I'm writing when drawn aesthetically pleasing. It's not very readable however.

Japanese companies have implemented the Personal Area Network, using the body's conductivity to make a network between devices (PDA, phone), and person to person. IBM's PAN was six years ago, but it's still a good idea. The devil's in the details, however. Does it restrict itself to a transport layer, allowing any application to pair over it? The Bluetooth handshaking protocol would seem useful here. Does it maintain security from the ground up? And of course, for the really useful applications (like giving a select group of people - medical personel say - privy to only certain pieces of information without your countersignature), this is only one piece of the jigsaw -- we still require a massive government-funded Public Key Infrastructure to back this up (and in the UK's case to support electronic service delivery by central and local government, if they're going to meet the 2005 deadline of all services being available online).

The Semantic Web and RDF explained in haiku. "'The Semantic Web'/ takes up many syllables/ but I struggle on".