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Nathan's interests include open source, open web protocols, and programming languages.

Nathan co-founded Intrigo, a software development house in Portland that develops web applications that power startup companies.

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28 April 2008 - 4:06Three discussions that rocked my weekend.

Below are three articles that I came to read this weekend that really just rocked me. I wanted to share and comment on them here in hopes that someone else will find them similarly thought provoking.

Adam Greenfield - “Anti-social Networking”

Adam’s position can be summarized as such: that the social webs we weave in places like Facebook and LinkedIn are broken, severely so, and at a very fundamental level. Adam further argues that “the only way to win is not to play” and makes the claim that we are better off as a society with out those tools at all (at least, as implemented).

His main argument is this: within these social networks we are asked (read: required) to define our complex, dynamic and often ambiguous real-world relationships in a very concrete way, often having to make a binary choice between defining a ‘friend’ or ‘not-friend’ relationship with the people in our lives that we varyingly know, like, love, dislike and with as many nuances as we have encounters with those people. This is bad as it leads to social interaction that is hopelessly “autistic” in behavior. I’ve read similar positions from others, including one from Joel Spolsky in 2004 who in turn referenced a talk by academic Danah Boyd.

Adam writes:

By contrast, having to declare the degree of intimacy you’re willing to grant each friend, whether in public and for all to see or simply so that they see it, is a state of affairs I’ve described, in comments elsewhere, as “frankly autistic.” It’s no way to arrange things as absolutely central to life as friendship, of that I am sure.

For all of these reasons, I believe that technically-mediated social networking at any level beyond very simple, local applications is fundamentally, and probably persistently, a bad idea. From where I stand, the only sane response is to keep our conceptions of friendship and affinity from being polluted by technical metaphors and constraints to begin with.

I understand where Adam is coming from; there is a severe awkwardness that comes with attempting to reify our relationships with other people as a mathematical model and it occasionally (or maybe even often) leads to the hurtful and decidedly anti-social behaviors that he describes in his post. That much I agree with.

Where Adam loses me is in his argument that this is a fundamental flaw of social networking as it exists on the web and that the only solution is to abandon the concept full stop. His conclusion, though, misunderstands the reasons people maintain their presence on these social networks and ignores the the many ways that these networks have proven themselves to be uniquely useful and, arguably, have net positive outcomes for their users.

The most glaring bad assumption is that people use social networks for the purpose of modeling their real world relationships instead of as a means to efficiently disseminate information among the people that are most likely to find such information relevant. While “friending” someone as an indication of a meaningful real world relationship is, I agree, ridiculous, stating explicitly that “this person’s information is, in some form, relevant to me” isn’t really all that awkward of a concept and I don’t buy the idea that because some providers have chosen to borrow words we usually reserve to indicate a more intimate relationship than “relevancy” that it condemns the concept as a whole. In fact many networks have transcended this awkwardness to a large extent simply with a change in wording and a slight tweak to the model.

There are examples of this working successfully all over the web. Twitter, just to name one, allows a person to ‘follow’ the updates of another. The word itself lacks any implication of relationship: I may follow you because you’re a close friend of mine and I want to stay up on your happenings or I may follow you because you’re an industry commentator and your updates may be relevant to my work. The social tool itself is very similiar to what you’d find on Facebook or LinkedIn, only the wording is different and the social awkwardness is gone.

In short, I share Adam’s views that current implementations are to a certain extent broken but I don’t agree with his conclusion that social networking’s inherent properties make the situation hopeless. Which ever side you lean towards, though, you should read the discussion that followed because there are some absolutely brilliant comments embedded in there. My favorite (perhaps because I agree with it ;) ) is a comment made by ‘Even’, an excerpt here:

I think my greatest problem with the ’social networks bad, no social networks best, contextual situated social networks maybe ok’ contention is that it seems, how should I put this, somewhat lacking in nuance.

Abstraction will be useful and we often benefit from simplifications carried out by many processes. I am fairly certain a blanket argument could be made against theatre for its failure to be anything but a bleak imitation of life itself, but I am uncertain how effective it would be. However grotesque we may find the mapping between social relations of real life humans and joined database columns, we do need to look at what use social networks are actually being put to in different services. Most often the network simply eases the dissemination of information.

Read the excellent discussion on Adam’s blog: Anti-social Networking

Clay Shirky - Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

It’s a story we’ve heard again and again over the last 10 years: Old Media consistently fails to “get it” when it comes to the profound changes that the web is catalyzing. Ground-up community-led (often merit-based) efforts that are birthed on the Internet are not a “passing fad” (as one TV producer puts it) but represent a fundamental shift in the way that society creates and disseminates information, on par with prior revolutions such as the introduction of the printing press, the grand scale availability of communications systems to individuals (ie. the telegraph and telephone) and, ironically, the triumph of broadcast radio and television. Old Media’s naivety (or, more likely, willful ignorance) of the changing times would be maddening if it wasn’t so funny. I rest easy at night knowing that the coming tsunami of change does not require the understanding or support of the old guard but that it can and will route around them, as revolutions are apt to do.

Clay’s argument is that this change doesn’t necessarily lead to better production or better content (as anyone familiar with the quality of YouTube comments or Digg posts can attest) simply that it is a different model of social participation, one that has proven not only to be possible but seems now inevitable and one that will fundamentally change a whole lot of existing structures.

Looking forward twenty years I think we’ll see a few of the media companies that will able to reinvent themselves enough to stay in the game (that is, stay in business) but their relevance to society will be greatly diminished, replaced in many instances by self-organized information communities and self-publishing professionals and professional groups. Monolithic top-heavy media behemoths are the steam locomotives of the web revolution.

Read Clay’s take on this: Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

Michael Pollan’s “Why Bother?” (New York Times)

While the web revolution barrels down the track there’s another fledgling revolution, wholly more important, who’s inevitability is not so clear. From Michael Pollan’s excellent article about how individual choices affect global climate change:

Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will. That, after all, was precisely what happened in Communist Czechoslovakia and Poland, when a handful of individuals like Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik resolved that they would simply conduct their lives “as if” they lived in a free society. That improbable bet created a tiny space of liberty that, in time, expanded to take in, and then help take down, the whole of the Eastern bloc.

Read the rest of Michael Pollan’s excellent answer to the question: “Why Bother?

4. (BONUS!) Tim Bray - Multi-Inflection-Point Alert

I actually read this earlier in the week, but I’ll include it anyway. This one is pure candy, just for fun. There’s not a lot of substance to it but if you (like I obviously do) buy into the idea that we are at an inflection point in society facilitated by the new types of tools that ubiquitous Internet provides, then you’ll like this post by Tim Bray.

I was up late on IM with a much-younger computer programmer and he asked “Damn, there’s a lot going on. Is it always like this?” Well, no, it hasn’t been. But in the future, it may be.

Near as I can tell, we’re simultaneously at inflection points in programming languages and databases and network programming and processor architectures and Web development and IT business models and desktop environments. Did I miss anything? What’s bigger news is that we might be inflection-point mode pretty steadily for the next few years.

Read the rest of Tim’s post at: Multi-Inflection-Point Alert

5 Comments | Tags: computer science, economics, politics, software design

2 February 2008 - 17:55Act Two of: Three small things I’m doing to make a difference in this year’s election.

This is part two of three of the series “Three small things I’m doing to make a difference in this year’s election.” It was supposed to appear on facebook on Monday, but I figure if it’s still Monday in Hawaii, then it counts. I am, however, a week late posting this to Wordpress.

This one’s not as long as it looks because it’s really two notes in one. The second half is a response to Ryan’s comment on my last post, read it if you’re still curious about why I support my specific candidate.


Last week I made my first contribution to the Obama campaign. It was a modest contribution, considering what is at stake, but I know that this year every little bit counts.

Act Two: Contributing what I can.

Here’s why I contributed:

There are a lot of ways to help a campaign or a cause you feel passionately about. By far the two most common ways are:

  • Give your time.

  • Give your money so that other people can give their time.

I hope to, someday soon, give my time to a political campaign, particularly Obama’s. I definitely plan to when he has won the Democratic primary and we’re in the midst of the general election.

But, to be honest, persuading people face to face to support a particular candidate or cause is not my strong suite. Not even close.

So I chose to contribute the best way I know how: by giving resources. Call it campaign contribution specialization. I’ll leave the heavy persuading to the experts, or at least, to those that are half way decent at it, and I’ll help enable them by giving them what they need: money.

Once I decided how to contribute, the question became: how much do I contribute?

That’s a hard question. The obvious answer is, from the perspective of the campaign: “as much as you can!” Yes, well, I’m still working on being that generous.

So I broke it down differently (read: arbitrarily): what am I willing to go without this month to support a cause I believe in? A drink at the bar? A movie theater ticket? A night out at a nice restaurant (I like to treat myself once in a while, okay?)

When I thought about it that way, my contribution was much easier to make. Now I was making a tangible sacrifice as opposed to some arbitrary gift. It even allowed me to put it in terms of working hours. I could start work on a Monday and say “these next four hours are for Obama!” and continue about my day normally doing what I love knowing that during that time I was working double for my cause.

You would hope that when it’s a cause you care deeply about, you can just write a check and not think about it. Well, maybe you can, but I‘m not there yet. I need to feel like my money has no better place to go. So, when I started comparing my choice to contribute against some of the “luxuries” in my life, it became crystal clear: This month, I’m forgoing them to give hope an edge.

It’s such a small gesture, but one I feel very confident making.


Response to comments

Ryan Erickson brought up some very good questions in a comment to my last post. I want to address them because both: A) there is merit in the discussion and B) some of the points raised by Ryan are common doubts of voters on the fence between Obama and Clinton or Obama and McCain (for us independents).

I owe Matt Stone a few beers, at least, for finding and sharing all of the links I present here. I nabbed most of them from his facebook newsfeed. Thanks Matt!

(Quoted text is excerpted from Ryan’s comment on Sunday)

EVERYONE wants what Obama decribes. The real question is, who can make it happen?

I find the argument that ‘everyone’ wants what Obama describes to be verifiably false. There are several positions that Obama takes that few of the Republican candidates dare. He supports (and voted for) the restoration of habeas corpus for those detained by our country, he supports stem cell research, he supports withdrawal from Iraq, he has policy proposals to lead us off of our oil dependency, and he (actually) opposes torture. Most of his positions I support, some of them I do not, but his positions are verifiablly different than those of other candidates. Each voter can judge for themselves whether or not they agree.

I have yet to hear Obama speak of any specific issue he plans to address or how he will address a issues … He fails to identify specific issues and describe how he will address them.

I think you may be listening to only his speeches. I can’t say I blame you, they’re quite good. ;o)

When you do the research though it becomes obvious that no candidate has a specific plan to the point that it can become legislation the day they take office. That’s never going to happen during an election as long as we keep running them as we do, specific policy proposals are too easy to attack, so it largely becomes a leap of faith for the voter.

But there are allusions to plans on each candidate’s website. Obama’s positions are very clear, and his proposals are no more or less detailed than any other candidate’s. I invite you to verify that yourself.

He has no national accomplishesment, or significant track record at all. So how can we judge his ability to create what he describes?

In my mind, becoming a front runner in a presidential election is significant in itself, but I can understand how you may want something more substantial. :o)

Significant, obviously, is subjective and the ‘my accomplishment is bigger than your accomplishment’ bickering between candidates so quickly degenerates that it makes it a mostly meaningless discussion. However there are things that we can look at.

One common argument that the Clintons make is that Hillary Clinton has more experience than Obama. That’s not exactly true, Obama has been representing constituencies as an elected official for far longer than Clinton has. Obama has a voting record in the Illinois Senate that we can look at and verify. In fact Obama has a significant (there’s that word again) track record, similar to McCain in this way, of cutting through the bullshit and getting things done in a divided legislature.

But, and I think this is by far the most important point, length of experience in national politics is an extremely poor predictor of presidential success.

Is it not just as likely that he will have no idea what to do, which is all I can conclude since he NEVER offers solutions? Or, that his lack of experience and direction will leave this country worse off than it was before he took office?

No, for the reasons above, I believe that there is a better than 50/50 chance of Obama not screwing up our country. ;o)

The implicit argument in your statement is that people are naive to follow someone who hasn’t yet proven to be the most effective candidate.

But then as a voter you’re left with two choices: You can risk naively supporting a candidate who is aligned with your beliefs and will fight for them to the best of their abilities, or you can vote for the candidate who will represent values that are not yours and will do so very effectively.

Given those two choices, I’ll gladly take the first. Thankfully, though, this year we have a candidate who can give us the best of both: Obama shares my values and has shown that he can lead effectively.

A belief that we can be better.

I firmly believe that policies don’t make a great country, its people do. No policy will ever catalyze as much positive change as a leader who can motivate and inspire us to be better individuals and a better nation.

Obama has shown that he shares my values and can move a nation. That’s why I’m contributing.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8mG5qfDXL4&rel=1]

No Comments | Tags: policy, politics, voting

27 January 2008 - 0:33Three small things I’m doing to make a difference in this year’s election.

Arizona’s primary is on February 5th, just 10 days away. I felt compelled to share (with those willing to read this) three very small things that I will be doing to make a difference this election year.

Act One: voting for Barak Obama.

Here’s why:

Sometime around last year, like many people, I began getting very depressed about the state and trajectory of our country. I’ll abstain from enumerating the reasons, suffice it to say that I felt that there was a strong disconnect between the body of values I was brought up to believe America represents, and the abhorrent, very real, consequences of it’s policies.

I was truly feeling that all of the progress we had made in the last two hundred years was giving way to a new dark age of stagnation, violence and secrecy from which we may not emerge in our lifetime.

Until I heard Obama.

I had lost my religion and here out of nowhere comes a political savior. A man who, more than any politician I have ever witnessed in my lifetime, embodies the hope that our nation can recapture it’s purpose.

I’m not going to pass up this opportunity to help elect someone that sees this nation as I do, who also believes in the values that our country so desperately needs to reembrace.

And as an added bonus, as if I needed nudging, he wins elections.

It’s not about the policies.

For me this year it’s not about the details of the issues. It’s not about the policy proposals. I’m aware of Obama’s policies, I agree with most of them, there are some I disagree with. Same is true of any of the candidates, I’ve read about them all. Judging only on policy promises, I wouldn’t vote for a single one of them, they’re all terrible!

But impeccable policy proposals are a pipe dream. When was the last time we heard proposed legislation and everyone rose up and said “Wow, that’s perfect!” Nope, never going to happen. Policy is hard, arguably intractable, and I don’t expect any of the candidates to “wow” me with their proposals (unless, of course, you count “Wow, that’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard. Heck, I’m not even mad, that’s amazing.“).

It’s about something much bigger.

How does voting on my ideals and my conscience make me any different than the ‘values’ voters of 2004 that turned out in great numbers for President Bush? In a lot of ways, it doesn’t. But I will stack up the values of hope and unity of purpose of the Obama campaign against the tyranny of fear and intolerance that pervaded the last Bush campaign any day. I’m voting for corrective action; I’m voting for the future of my nation’s temperament; I’m voting my heart; I’m voting for hope.

I’m voting for Obama, and I hope you do, too.

Acts two and three of “Three Things I’m Doing To Make A Difference in This Year’s Election” will be posted on Monday and Tuesday.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AmUUYo9o9eg&rel=1]

1 Comment | Tags: politics, voting

26 December 2007 - 15:37AZ Independents can NOT vote in primary!

I wanted to share what I learned today as I requested my early ballot in Arizona for the presidential primaries. Some things you should know if you are registered in Arizona:

  1. Both the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries will be held on February 5th.
  2. Contrary to popular belief, if you are registered Independent (’NO PARTY’ on your reg card) you will NOT be able to vote or request an early ballot. You MUST be registered for the party who’s primary you intend to vote in. AZCentral has some coverage on this.

    The gist is: while Arizona independents DO get to vote in state primaries, the law that enables this does not apply to ‘presidential preference’ votes. An irritating catch, especially if you’re like me and haven’t decided which primary you’ll be voting in yet.

  3. Moreover, if you want to change your registration (even just temporarily) to vote in one or the other primary, you must do so before midnight on January 7th (two weeks away!). It takes about 2 minutes to register online and you can change it back after the primary.
  4. To request an early ballot, you must do so from the county within which you are registered. You can request that ballot to be mailed anywhere (I’ll be filling out my AZ ballot in Oregon).

    Early Ballot Request for Pima County, AZ
    Early Ballot Request for Maricopa County, AZ

  5. Please vote! Or not, and make my vote count more. I’ll be ok with that. ;o)

1 Comment | Tags: politics, voting

11 May 2007 - 16:54Wiretapping what?

Not to play the party card (for those who don’t know, I have a strong and fairly equal dislike for both sides of the aisle), but only under the Bush administration does one have to outlaw something that is already illegal.

Synop: Bill outlaws domestic wiretapping (again); passed in the House today.

No Comments | Tags: politics, publish_to_facebook, war

23 August 2006 - 6:12Two sides to every war

Found these videos on You Tube two weeks ago, at the height of the Israeli offensive into Lebanon. I think this is a stunning example of the way new media (or democratized media, as some are calling it) has the potential to change the way we learn about war, it’s causes and it’s atrocities. With media tools such as YouTube (and it’s hundreds of clones), one no longer needs to make an appeal to the juggernaut of traditional media to get their message heard.

As far as I remember the Israeli attack on civilians linked below wasn’t covered by CNN or any of the other major US TV news outlets (please correct me below if I’m wrong), except for maybe a passing mention of ‘reports of civilian deaths.’ There was, however, plenty of coverage of the Hezbollah missile attacks, including video. I speculate that in other parts of the world, the situation was reversed. There’s hope with democratized media, I think, that when no single point controls the message societies can see their own aggressions for what they really are. Or, at the very least, see them as their enemy sees them.

The first is a video of a Hezbollah rocket attack targeting civilians in Haifa, Israel.

The second, an Israeli missle attack on a civilian crowd in Lebanon.

No Comments | Tags: middle east, politics, war