Some things from Everything is Miscellaneous by Weinberger

July 16, 2007 at 1:34 pm 2 comments

Some things from Everything is Miscellaneous by Weinberger.

I found this to be both a good read and a frustrating read.  A few years ago I read Small Pieces Loosely Joined and really enjoyed it.  It was a bibliography of sorts, and it lead to many other interesting books.  Reading Miscellaneous, it seems I’ve read all the books Weinberger refers to already and more, and I found myself pleased to see some good overview and aggregation, yet disappointed when certain texts did not appear or they were present only in the unfootnoted! note section at the back of the book.

The theme of the book reminds me of my comments about finding the raisins at the grocery store.  There are dramatic effects on ‘organization’ when information and things go from physical entities to digital bits.  This is beginning to affect how we think about information, things, and the world.  Also as Kurzweil suggests “everything – including physical products, once nanotechnology-based manufacturing becomes a reality in about twenty years – is becoming information.” 

P5 Information is easy.  Space, time, and atoms are hard.

In physical space, some things are nearer than others.
Physical objects can be only in one spot at any one time.
Physical space is shared.
Human physical abilities are limited.
The organization of the store needs to be orderly and neat.

P13 The solution to the overabundance of information is more information.  Add metadata to help catagorization.

P14 The digital world thereby allows us to transcend the most fundamental rule of ordering the real world: Instead of everything having its place, it’s better if things can get assigned multiple places simultaneously.

P18 the first order of order is organization of the things themselves, e.g. silverware in drawers.  Second order of order might be a card catalog, separation information about the first order objects from the objects themselves. 

P19 the problem with the first two orders of order goes back to the fact that they arrange atoms.  Atoms take up room; atoms tend to be unstable over time.  But now we have bits, this is the third order of order and it removes the limitations we’ve assumed were inevitable in how we organize information.

P22 We have entire industries and institutions built on the fact that paper order severely limits how things can be organized.  Museums, educational curricula, newspapers…  are all based on the assumption that in the second-order world we need experts  to go through information, ideas, and knowledge and put them neatly away.  But now we can route around the second order.  It is changing how we think the world itself is organized and …who we think has the authority to tell us so.

P26 Precisely because alphabetical order is unnatural and arbitrary, it took a long time to be accepted.  He walks through examples of alphabetical lists and criticisms thereof through history.  Alphabetization had trouble taking root not just because it’s conceptually confusing – space, time and atoms conspire to make it hard to alphabetize information that is not yet complete.  You end up leaving blank space for additional items.

P31 In the third order of order though, ideas become unglued….other scholars shelve them differently, as may anyone who enters a bookstore to browse.  In the digital order, all shelvings are provisional.

P32 Plato in Phaedrus talks about reality having natural joints and compares knowing the world with butchering an animal: A skilled thinker, like someone skilled at carving the drumsticks off a turkey, has to know where the joints are.  Arbitrary organizational schemes such as alphabetization make a virtue out of ignoring the joints.  Ian Hacking: The Social Construction of What?  …even reality [is] an invention, an arbitrary [way] of carving up the turkey.  Also mentioned in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things by Lakoff.

P34 Drawing lines has real consequences, and… elites use arbitrary lines to stay in power. …  [I am reminded of Sorting Things Out again: P 137 The material culture of bureaucracy and empire is not found in pomp and circumstance, nor even in the first instance at the point of a gun, but rather at the point of a list.] Western history began with the ancient Greek belief that not only must the world have joints, but if knowledge is to exist, humans have to be capable of discerning them….  Knowledge is what happens when the joints of our ideas are the same as the joints of nature.  Further, order is beauty…

P42 “envisions a remedy to the flaws in conventional periodic tables by illustrating hydrogen’s ambiguous relationship to the noble gases and halogens while recognizing its relationship to the alkali metals; it also fully integrates the lanthanons and actinons into the design.”

P45 Umberto Eco says, there are many ways to carve a cow but none of them include serving a segment that features the snout connected to the tail.

P52 Speaking of Dewey and the decimal system.  Speaks of the “Memory palace a mnemonic device that dates back to Cicero recalling every victim crushed in a collapsed building (Yates – Art of Memory)

P65 The secret life of lists (to contrast with the Social Life of Information?)  Find Borges “The analytical Language of John Wilkins.”  A list is our most basic way of ordering ideas.

Every list has at least one thing in common; each list is about something.  A list is complied for some reason.  Headings are information about the information that follows; that is they’re metadata.  There are rules for listing metadata, just as there are for listing items. The metadata should be differentiated in appearance, perhaps underlined and capitalized, perhaps written in a different color.  The items have to be laid out to make clear their relationship to the headline, usually by writing them beneath their heading.  This distinctive formatting reveals nesting, one of the most powerful ways of organizing ideas.

P68 Nesting is a fundamental technique of human understanding.  It may even be the fundamental technique, at least at its most primitive form: lumping and splitting.  In the case of a map, a boundary splits off some unit of land and lumps together what’s within the boundary.  Aristotle: metaphysics.  Plato – items we encounter in real life are but poor sketches of the perfect version of each, Plato’s forms.  This sounds like the invariant representations’ in On Intelligence, by Hawkins.

Aristotelian trees…come with assumptions embedded so deep in our tradition of thought that they look like common sense: A well constructed tree gives each thing a place.  If too many items don’t have places and thus have to be shoved into the miscellaneous category (which can be a very informative category to people researching classification systems, Bowker and Starr) then the tree isn’t doing its job.  2. Each thing gets only one spot.  No one category should be too big or too small.  It should be obvious what the defining principle of each category is.

P 71 The passion with which we dispute the details of the trees we’ve constructed demonstrates that we believe, along with Aristotle, that some trees reflect the neat, clean, comprehensive, knowable branching structure of reality itself.  All along, though, our knowledge of the world has assumed the shape of a tree, because that knowledge has been shackled to the physical.  Now that the digitization of information is allowing us to go beyond the physical…the shape of our information is changing.

P77 Nested order not on paper?  [What shape would nested order take if it were not on paper? I don’t remember the context of this note]  Linnaeus’ organization took the shape it did in part because he constructed it out of paper.

P87 Sidetracked home executive.

P100 Ideas about traditional knowledge:

  1. There is one reality the same for all – if two people have contradictory ideas about something factual they can’t both be right [how about one person?].
  2. Reality is not ambiguous, so neither is knowledge.  If something isn’t clear, we just haven’t understood it.
  3. Because knowledge is as big as reality, no one person can comprehend it.  We need people who will act as filters, using their educational experience and clear thinking…to keep bad information away from us and provide us with the very best information
  4. Experts achieve their position by working their way up through social institutions….which groups get funded can determine what a society believes, and funding is often granted by people who know less than the experts.

P102 Four new strategic principles are emerging

  1. filter on the way out, not on the way in…in the third order of order where there’s an abundance of access to an abundance of resources, filtering on the way in decrease the value of that abundance by ruling out items that might be of great value to a few people.  Think long-tail. …take the editorialization out of the peer review process.
  2. Put each leaf on as many branches as possible.  In the real word a leaf can hang from only one branch.
  3. Everything is metadata and everything can be a label. Think Amazon.  Everything is connected and everything is metadata.  The only distinction between metadata and data is that metadata is what you already know and data is what you’re trying to find out.
  4. Give up control.  No one person or group is going to be able to organize, a big pile of miscellaneous information] in all the useful ways.  Let users mix it up for themselves.  The owners of information no longer own the organization of that information,

P134 propsmart , zillow, (next-generation, independent real estate search engines)

P143 Social knowers, speaking of Wikipedia the knowing happened not in one’s brain but in their conversation.  The knowledge exists between the contributors.  Social knowing changes who does the knowing and how, more than it changes the what of knowledge. 

P144 in current-day education knowing is something done by individuals.  It is something that happens inside your brain.  Knowledge could not get any less social.  In fact in those circumstanced when knowledge is social we call it cheating.  Our children are doing their homework socially even though they’re being graded and tested as if they’re doing their work in isolation booths.  Ut in the digital order, their approach is appropriate: Memorizing facts is often now a skill more relevant to quiz shows that to life (I made this same point awhile ago, students should be rewarded for the cut-n-paste).

P157, gmif, 

P160 Michael Polanyi tacit knowledge.  KM systems have done best when they’ve worked quietly, gathering the knowledge generated implicitly in the course of work, organizing emails into webs of information, including who is an expert based on seeing who’s responding most frequently on in-house chats, and building libraries out of the links people send each other.

P165 tags capture only a few bits of information.  Therein lies a paradox of the digital order.  As we pull the leaves from the trees and make a pile of the miscellaneous, we free the leaves from their implicit context.  Thomas Van der Wal folksonomy.

P166 Morville, Ambient Findability says the inability of folksonomies to handle equivalence hierarchy and other semantic relationships cause them to fail miserably at any significant scale.  P168 so Morville may have it backward: tags may become more useful, meaningful, relevant, and clearer the more there are.  I think he truncated Morville’s discussion….  Yes he did.  Morville had more to say:

 p.138,9 Folksonomies flourish in the cornucopia of the commons without noticeable cost….They are an amazing tool for trendspotting…not bad for bookmarking and keeping found things found, but when it comes to findability their inability to handle equivalences, hierarchy, and other semantic relationships causes them to fail miserably at any significant scale.  [But] ontologies, taxonomies, and folkonomies are not mutually exclusive…a hybrid metadata ecology that combines elements of each may be ideal. 

p. 140,141 References Stewart Brand and Pace Layering in buildings as conceptually similar to this discussion of metadata.  Taxonomies and ontologies provide the solid semantic network that connects interface to infrastructure.  And the fast-moving…folksonomies sit on top: flexible, adaptable, and responsive to user feedback.

P 173 as we straighten out first and second order messes we feel better because we’re restoring situations to the way they ought to be. …touches a sense of propriety that is deeper – or perhaps just older- than our need to tidy up.  In restoring order we are making the world habitable, fit for humans.  Messiness is a disruption.  Orderliness is the way things are supposed to be.  It is the eleventh commandment, the one that caused the other ten to arrange themselves in neat lines on two symmetric halves of the tablet.

There are practical benefits to being well-ordered.  A library card-catalog dumped on the floor is of no value.  Arranging the cards in neat alphabetical order by author, title, and subject and now you can find the books you’re looking for,,.,  Organizing things neatly in the first two orders of order requires us to make those sorts of decisions….the third order…is a mess from the git-go.

Levy made similar comments in Scrolling Forward.

P177  Messiness has always been with us  – think of Scrolling Forward and Levy’s discussion of keeping chaos at bay.  But our culture has not only struggled against it, it has measure progress by how thoroughly it has tamed it.

P185 speaking of prototype concepts.  Rosch and psychology.  The task of categorization systems is to provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort….most, if not all, categories do not have clear-cut boundaries.  Prototypes [are] culturally relative.  I.e. Political (think of Sorting Things Out).  Invariant representations from On Intelligence.

P 190 links hyperlinks, Berners-Lee….and finally mentions Vannevar Bush.  Suppose all the information stored on computers everywhere were linked.

P195 semantic web sites. 

P193 Something can be 73 percent in a category – Schachter

200 mentions Umberto Eco again – same quote.  Is knowledge being fragmented?  Are we being fragmented along with it?  I think it’s odd that he used this quote again.  Fragmented?  It could be that this book was written as fragmented blog posts that were pasted together.  So yes.

P201 mentions Linked, by Barabasi

P211 Stephen Wolfram one of the creators of complexity theory even thinks phenomena from smoke billowing to galaxies spawning can be explained by a handful of simple formulas.  The Singularity is Near.

P215  Since the commoditization of knowledge includes its easy accessibility, business loses one of its traditional assets.  Information may not want to be free, in Stewart Brand’s memorable phrase, but is sure wants to be dirt cheap.

P217 arXiv preprint server?

P222 Imagining electronic books:  every time a student highlights or annotates a page that information will be used to enhance the public metadata about the book.  Even how long it takes people to get through pages or how often they go back to particular pages will enrich our third-order world, reading will cease to be a one-way activity.  It will become as social as the knowledge….all that metadata, and every use of metadata will enrich the context within which we make sense of what we read and learn.

P224 Now that information is being commoditized it has more value if its set free into the miscellaneous.

P233 To a collector of curios, the dust is metadata. Remember the Social Life of Information and the guy sniffing the envelopes. 

In The Social Life of Information, John Seely Brown, Duguid, is described an historian snorting ancient letters to see if they contained traces of vinegar which was used to try and prevent the spread of Cholera in order to chart the historic spread of the disease. 

[Also you might avoid buying the beer with dust on the shoulders of the bottle.]

As I read the book I was surprised there were no footnotes or references.  Then I hit the notes at the back!  Each chapter had notes! And they were numbered.  Yet there were no numbers in the text at all.  You could look back to see what he references at which point but this is completely bass-ackwards.  Annotation of this text ala John Dee would be great, but I have to return the book today!  Including the approach to notes of using pages numbers at the top would be great.  Notes for pages x-y, for y-z, etc.

I am feeling more and more guilty about dog-earing the books, but I don’t know what else to do – I won’t use those bookdarts and paper falls out, and I need a non fall-out-able way to annotate.  Pencil and paper next to … pencil?

Not specifically mentioned in Weinberger’s book is the difference between bookstores, and libraries, and Amazon.   Why are there never (rarely – Borders had one) public terminals where I can conduct my own search through the bookstores stock?  Libraries excel here.  Not only are books ordered much better, but I can look up exactly what I’m looking for and then go find it on the shelf. I can also browse topic areas.  I get incredibly frustrated at Barnes and Noble trying to a specific book.  On Amazon I will find it within thirty seconds.  The difference of course, is that I have to wait for Amazon to ship it to me, while I can walk out of Barnes and Noble with the book in hand.  Printing on demand would be cool, but I don’t want to fry my printer that way.  E-books?  I haven’t evolved yet.


Entry filed under: feed my pet brain, information literacy, KM.

Wikis for organizing things Freaky notes from Freakonomics, by Levitt and Dubner

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KM and Organizing Information « Feed My Pet Brain  |  August 28, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    […] post continues, asking questions that calls to mind Glut, Everything is Miscellaneous, and Information Anxiety 2, and Sorting Things Out, etc.: sure organization is great, but how?  […]

  • […] distributed the content. Google shuffles the Web, and iPod shuffles the music.”  [Mind trail to Everything is Miscellaneous, where the shuffle techna franca refers the ‘the third order of […]


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