Friday, March 31, 2006

Frisson de Folksonomie

Oh, look at the date. It's been a while, hasn't it? Indulge me if you will in part 6 of the Things Fall Apart series. A slight detour perhaps, or rather a journey into the heart of dar- ... technology, and matrimony.

A Social Bookmarking Affair


CatharsisSeductionIntimacyPlayReconciliation

Cherrelle's Affair


JournalMusic

Catharsis


I have a crush. There, I finally said it. I feel better already. I'm confessing that I have a serious case of folksonomic titillation. I can no longer stand this conflicted life... The pastor counseled us before marriage that these things are best dealt with in the open. So Dear Wife, I must confess a previously secret admiration.

The object of my affection is meryn. More precisely my belle-de-jour is del.icio.us/meryn. Even more accurate is that I'm jonesing for the set of tags at del.icio.us/meryn. I get a frisson de folksonomie every time I look at her assets, those tags of hers.

Seduction


Stay! Don't you walk out that door. Please stay... Let me explain... Oh... Where should I start in discussing this social bookmarking affair of ours? Of mine, I mean. It's so hard to know how to talk about these things... I know that you think that I must be used to it since I spent those years in France, but believe me, affairs are not my kind of thing. It never crossed my mind, it's just... Well maybe I should start at the beginning... I know you have questions... It hurts... but please... please, let me tell the story my way...

We first met about a year ago at the bar of a hotel called del.icio.us, regulars don't use those two periodic seperators in the official name. As you might know I've been spending some time at that joint since... well, I think it was September 2004. My first bookmark was called Writing Well on the Web, I disagreed with that piece (keep everything brief?). Anyway, del.icio.us isn't a bad joint as social bookmarking hotels go, a little minimalist on the eyes but it's getting quite crowded these days and of late you hear a lot of yahoos. She, on the other hand, started frequenting the bar sometime in the dark days of winter 2004, you know, after that election...

I can remember the exact day we met. I had written something on People, Processes and Things in the morning and, after giving it the day to simmer, settled down after work to bookmark the post with the benefit of a few hours reflection. After the act, I noticed that a certain meryn had been quicker on the tag to my own musings, and with nice tags to boot (communication, association, collaboration, interaction, facilitation and mediation were the words she used). Interesting, I thought, not quite how I would have tagged it, but you know, different strokes for different folks.

The name vaguely rang a bell, perhaps I had overhead it in one of those community software dives I sometimes frequent. Or was it some network economics something or other? Oh well, I thought nothing of it.

Later on I noticed some intertwingling and bookmarking consonance. She seemed to have picked up some of the same links as me, or was it the other way round? But I didn't care. It was just an occasional flirtation with groupthink, nothing serious you know. No serendipity really. No one made any moves.

Things really got going started just days before I proposed to you. Uh-huh. I had been writing about the importance of syntax in technology adoption. I had even posited "cognitive impedance" as the theme of that article. What a mouthful. That day, I beat her to the tag, I had learned my lesson about delayed gratification. Yet when I came home that evening... That's right, you were away at a conference, remember? Bryn Mawr or something. Anyway, there I was, home alone, eating a TV dinner of kelewele and promiscuously surfing the web. I'm a habitual browser... Anyway...

There it was! A coup de foudre.

By her simple act of tagging, I saw a new way to conceptualize my material.

Yes! She walked right past me wearing a tag named "comprehension".

"Aha", I said. "That's what I had been writing about. The word I had been circling around, the conceptual truth I had been avoiding. Oh, what a tag."

Sure, she was also wearing a perfumed tag named "adoption" and shoes designed by a tag named "rejection", but who cares? I could no longer deny it.

Comprehension was the basis of my attraction.

And so it came to pass, things moved quickly from there on. It's quite a blur really... By June, I was using that term in my discourse. In barely three months I had internalized one of her goods.

Thus I'm confessing that every month or so, I secretly fire up the browser to look at her, to see if I can mine some more of her glorious tags.

They look so... well... how to put it? ... I just love... her... classification scheme... Her tags all end in "tion". There's a "je ne sais quoi" to her categorization... Great, great tags, they are...She... She puts words to concepts I had been thinking about but couldn't articulate... Such tags. All 319 of them, I've counted. Their contours are so... delicious.

Now I don't know why this happened. I can't say that I haven't been happy at home, I am verbose myself and have 1,266 tags of my own. Why aren't I satisfied? After all, those folks working on Dogear point out to me as an outlier with a gigantic folksonomic vocabulary.

Our marriage is still young... I feel I can tell you these things. I know you'll understand.

As it is, I've worked out that meryn and I now have 28 tags in common, I've adopted six of them after our monthly encounters.

Don't get me wrong. The links are fine to be sure, but it's rather that the tags give me the chills - I mean, it's that I look at them. I seek release in her folksonomy.

Intimacy


Mind you, I haven't acted on the attraction... Well that's not exactly true... I did succumb late last year and added meryn to the subscriptions in my del.icio.us inbox. It's such a useful feature; being able to subscribe to the bookmarks of others to see the ebb and flow of their ongoing reading. You can see the books I read, the photos I take and the music I listen to. Why not the bookmarks?

Don't look at me that way. Please... I'm not alone. There's nothing wrong with me! I saw that Jason Kottke was thanking his del.icio.us inbox just the other day. It's just data, says Sam Ruby. We're all wired together in a web of data say Adam Bosworth and Ray Ozzie. Let atomic feeds bind us together.

Of course like any episode of R Kelly's Trapped In The Closet, there are a few complications to my story. It's not quite the midget hiding under the kitchen sink, or Rosie, the nosy neighbour, who comes knocking on the door with a spatula on hand. Remember that wonderful musical moment we shared? You remember, don't you? You and I. Ahh. Remember how hard we laughed when that man Kelly delicately crooned the word "Spa-tula"? That was great wasn't it? How we laughed. That boy's lost his mind... Ha... Okay, Okay, I'll continue.

Anyway, I don't know how to put this, but no doubt you'll find out so I might as well tell you now. At the beginning of this year I found out that behind meryn is a man. His name is Meryn, Dutch I believe, an economist or some social scientist or other, with an affinity for things technological. I suspect he used to read me in the past but I was relegated to dinosaur status when I took that blogging hiatus to get married to you.

Now to tell the truth I had suspected as much. That she was a man, I mean, Most of the early adopters in the software world are men for some reason. You know, boys with toys. Let's face it, we make things difficult for women in technology. Such a shame really... Still he seems like a reasonable guy. All true man, heck he recently announced reaching the milestone of 1,000 bookmarks in del.icio.us.

Pssh... The size of her... I mean, the size of his bookmark collection doesn't matter to me. My interest was purely folksonomic. It was all about the tags. I was rather bent on mining her, I mean his, conceptual framework. This isn't Brokeback Mountain, it's more like Pimp My Tag. Sacré bleu. I can just see the case before the judge, "She only loves me for my tags, not my bookmarks". These social bookmarking feelings are so confusing sometimes.

Baby... Honey. Don't walk out of this room. Stay. Let me finish...

Where was I? Ah yes, two can play this game. I know that some people like me for my bookmarks. Then there are others who like me for my tags (size matters apparently and with a long tag list, there is evidence of my roving mind - you know too the stereotype about black men, that we have large... vocabularies). Still others like me for my occasionally jaundiced comments on said bookmarks. Well in meryn's case, it was all about the tags. I want to recapture the feeling of that first time. Their aggregation, consolidation, combination, interoperation, participation...

There have been others of course, I must admit... Don't throw that. Please... That won't help anything... Okay sure, I'll come clean. Yes, there've been other attractions in this social bookmarking world. At work for example, there's Mr Feinberg, but you know Jonathan after all, he even came to our wedding. I don't like him for his tags, it's more the bookmarks, he tends to dig up stimulating stuff about programming in the trenches. Then there's Carol on mass amateurization, Andy on collaboration, Tessa on glue. Outside there's Ethan on Africa and serial entrepreneurship, David and others too. I even occasionally snatch a peek at Coté's good enough tag and I'm flirting with The Governor's declarative living meme but haven't bitten that apple yet. I'm a prime example of that perhaps.

But here's the thing, all of those have been affairs of the bookmark not of the tag. Rather, I'm curious about how we name things. I want to internalize the concepts. The heart of the matter for me has always been the tag.

Play


Okay, Okay. I'll start over... What? You want me to explain? Explain what? Don't turn this around on me...Okay... I'll bite, I'll be a man about this... Whatever... I'll tag this social bookmarking thing. I'll break it down for you. I don't want to get all software engineer on you but you know I can do this. I've thought about it quite a bit, I've got a lot of tags you know... All right, here goes...

In social software, there are "people", there are "places", and there are "things". Oh some say that there are also "processes" and of course those exist, but let's stick to the fun stuff. Oh, you like the Rule of Four? Okay, whatever... it's just that processes are so... what's that new tag? enterprisey... Anyway, the "things" and the "places" are the shared context in a community. The places are like homes or land, things we feel proprietary about. The people however are where the action is found. We like to chat, we like to form groups, basically we're social beasts.

That man Metcalfe has a law which says that the value is all about the people. I think he means that communication is key. That man Reed has a law which claims the value is all about group forming - all those tribes and clans we like to form and the comfort and entertainment they provide us. The man Odlyzko says those two are overselling things (pdf) but even he says that the network has great value and it's quite considerable in the aggregate. Needless to say, there's money to be minted in software that aids collaboration or serves communities.

With social bookmarking, the "things" are
  • The bookmark
    the URI that we use to remember the site (identification of resources)
  • The web page that you see
    that's the representation (and I've even got a pitch about that)
  • The metadata
    That's the data about the data. It's the eternal headache. Things like
    • the title of the page
    • any comments you have
    • those newfangled tags you can use to remember the site
    • how you might rate it
    • what you were doing when you encountered the page
    • who referred you to the page etc.
That's it. There's nothing more to it. All that hullabaloo boils down to that. Well let me tell you about the social bookmarking scene, those hotels I've been cruising.

It's quite simple really, you merrily go around your surfing way and decide you'd like to remember a site. You click on a button, or right click, perhaps you select some text, and then you get shown a basic form, you enter some information and then most of those things are saved. That's the way of all social software: you gather the data, you explore the data, you search the data and you interact with people and exchange messages. The data could be anything at all; we have examples from music, films, books, food, places, lists etc. In this case it's bookmarks. The best social software will try to make it relatively painless to do the mundane things like entering and managing data and easy to do the more fun things like exploring and communicating. It may intrude a little in directing you around and suggesting new avenues but then everyone needs a little handholding from time to time.

I've hung out at 3 of these joints. What? You I think I am afraid to commit? That I have a split personality? Whatever.
  • Furl - which allows you to save a copy of the page along with everything else. I started out here because of said feature.
  • del.icio.us - well everyone likes Joshua Schachter's baby - it's lightweight, sweet and has most of the mindshare if not the users.
  • Dogear - It's very nice on the eyes. I use it to keep up with the IBM tribe and monitor things inside that Big Blue firewall. Plus they keep adding all the features I request and fixing the obscure corner cases I detect, thus I have a little hand in it. That pitch is about "social bookmarking for the enterprise". I hope it graduates from research to product, it certainly deserves to.
I know there are many other services out there but these three cover the essentials.

All right then, you wanted tags, I'll give you tags.

Language


Furl and Dogear are good names. You can use them as verbs. "I dogeared that page". "I furled that site". Indeed that's what the word dogear is used for in common language. Jonathan was suitably chuffed when I started using that felicitous phrase. You can't use delicious as a verb but it remains a powerful brand. It's rather like calling a "country" a "homeland" - hard to argue with, indeed one must love it, you're "treasonous" if you criticize it...

Identity and Security


Furl and del.icio.us care only that you have a valid email address. Dogear makes you use your real life identity or whatever your corporate directory would require. Obviously this can be changed and like the others, it can simply run off a user name or email address. Which leads us to...

Memorability


Ideally you can choose a handle or at least a persona to use in the service. With a name as long as mine, a nickname is far preferable. Of course this means that there's always going to be a land grab when it comes to names. It's much like when I signed up for 16 different free email accounts to hedge my bets in those glorious dot com days of yore.

Adoption


All these applications give you freebies; you don't need to login to get benefits from the system. You can browse bookmarks, tags and users and see what's current or popular. These social bookmarking hotels are like tobacco companies or drug dealers, they make sure you get a free taste before they hook you. Great capitalists they are. In economics they call this lowering the barriers to entry, I tag the concept as adoption, impedance and lubrication. The sociologists believe that this notion of lurking is important in all our communities. We may be social beasts but we're often shy and inarticulate and that's fine - well most of us are shy. Because one can behave relatively anonymously with these applications, at the very least, the service can monetize our eyeballs with advertising.

Notification


You can subscribe to feeds for almost every page that you might encounter in these applications. This allows you to peruse later at your leisure. Notification and alerts are good ways to stimulate your interest. One feature that I haven't seen is a simple indication when new links have been suggested for you or if there are new subscribers to your links.

Navigation


These are web applications hence interaction is all about hyperlinks and forms which are the currency of the web. Thus there lots of links, and they follow the hyperlink imperative to allow you to pivot around and navigate the site. The front pages feature recent links, popular links, popular tags, link clusters, random tags, links to your personalized view etc. Presumably if group features are implemented, they will also have prominent links.

Search


Search becomes more important as you gather lots of bookmarks or tags and navigation becomes more difficult; also sometimes it's the title or comment that you entered that was what you remember. That human brain is a weird one.

Latency


del.icio.us and dogear use a simple textbox for entering the list of tags and they throw in some auto-completion to make entering tags easier. The suggestions can also be sorted by relevance or popularity. You can also get frequency counts. They both seem to be moving towards adding in-line editing so that all you need to do is click to edit. Metadata is generally annoying hence the lower the latency, the more likely you'll enter and manage it. This again is to promote immediacy in the interaction.

Usability and Interaction


Furl is the worst of the three in one significant respect; the way it handles multiple tags is problematic for verbose people like me who use lots of tags. The proof is that I have half the number of tags in Furl than in the others even though I've been using it for longer. I can't count the number of times have I written to their technical support asking them for just a few tweaks to their system. Take a look at their dialog for saving a new bookmark.

furl bookmarking ui


It's a little cluttered as it's trying to gather a fair amount of information. I'd like wider text boxes for the title and URI - a wider dialog in general would be good.

Note that the select box only displays 4 tags at a time. This doesn't scale if you have more than 50 or so tags, let alone if you have several hundred. You simply can't scroll quickly through that many tags and pause to do that shift-click business.

Then they've deliberately made the "New topic" textbox small, implying that only one new topic can be created. This is not so; you can create multiple tags if you type them in separated by a semi-colon. This last fact is still not documented anywhere in their user interface, let alone their help. Indeed I learned of this hidden feature in passing on the delicious-discuss mailing list. It's as if Furl wants to actively discourage proliferation of tags.

Yeah, yeah. I know I could write my own interface and that those glue layer people at Freshblog have lots of bookmarklets and interfaces that let you post to Furl and del.icio.us simultaneously. But that's social bookmarking polygamy, who wants that?

On the other hand, Furl can collect far more metadata in that dialog than the others allowing you to separate your comments from article clippings. It even goes beyond the call of duty by inspecting the meta tags on the page, referrer pages and any HTTP headers from the page snapshot it saves.

Data and Storage


This last feature though, saving the web page along with the link and associated metadata, is probably what is giving the Furl folk their biggest headache. Plainly put, their storage needs are several orders of magnitude greater than the others. The vision of providing personalized snapshots of the web makes them face issues that are akin to what the Internet Archive and search engines face. One mitigating factor is that most users don't check their personal copies often since most links will continue to work. Further web pages are fairly small compared to the photos in Flickr or the videos in YouTube or Google Video.

Scaling


Thus scale is a great concern, first in terms of the number of users, the amount of data that the applications need to handle and the number of tags that are used. This affects the backend and the performance of the application but also the user interface. If you have huge numbers of tags the interface can get overwhelming thus you need to filter out the little used tags. Tag bundles in del.icio.us are an interesting way to manage this, you can group tags into bundles to help with filtering. Also with increasing scale, search becomes more important, that's why Google is popular in the web and likely why Yahoo bought del.icio.us.

Comprehension


Ah that glorious concept... In the social bookmarking setting, it's the matter of the syntax used for tags. Dogear and del.icio.us use spaces as separators, as does Flickr in the photo arena. Furl uses semi colons and All Consuming (books, music, food) uses commas.

Then there's the treatment of multiple words, the first two use quotes around them since the space character is not a separator character.

Then there's case sensitivity, Furl seems to treat "Technology" and "technology" as different tags which would be a problem most of the time I believe. I can just hear Jonathan tell me that 'dogear is case-preserving, but case-insensitive; it remembers that you tagged with "foo", but a click on "Foo" will find your bookmark'.

Then there are the perennial issue of "special characters". Tags have their own web pages and consequently each have their own URIs. As you know, there are restrictions to the characters that you can use in URIs (even though there are those newfangled things called Internationalized Resource Identifiers, IRIs, that might help). These difficulties however might mean that areas of the world that use characters that are outside the set normally allowed in URIs might have more problems and will likely see slower adoption. Combine this with the dissonance over separator characters and you get confusion. The Gruesome Twosome of Computer Science (Structured Data and Character Encoding) strike again.

Recommendation


The remedy that some of these applications have implemented is to display related tags to suggest alternatives. You can put a nice cluster of suggestions that might interest the user. Recommendation systems are a pet topic of mine and it has been interesting to see the various ways in which the applications try to direct you towards interesting things whether people, links or tags.

Discovery and Exploration


Dogear has a very nice interface for exploring subscriptions and the networks that can arise among users. Furl and del.icio.us only concentrate on your subscriptions; it would be interesting however to also see those who subscribe to you. Further one can imagine lots of social network analysis tooling applied to the corpus of data to discover and suggest latent and implicit communities of interest.

Privacy


The 'social' in social bookmarking is a little at odds with selfish uses of bookmarking. Thus these applications encourage sharing and only grudgingly added the feature of private bookmarks. Now I'm a promiscuous bookmarker myself, I've never used private bookmarks but I can see that if I'm researching for a patent, I might not want others to see those links I'm gathering on a particular subject. Still it appears that most people don't use private bookmarks although, when available, a small minority do make use of it. All subscriptions are public by default in the spirit of openness yet perhaps one could make a case for limiting the visibility of subscriptions in the same way as bookmarks. The same applies to user profiles, you can pick and choose what aspects about yourself you expose. Bookmarks are not as sensitive as things like photos hence the concern for privacy is less pronounced. Eventually if the group features mature in this area there will likely be a movement beyond the public/private dichotomy to things like friends, family, and named interest groups. Selective disclosure perhaps.

Visualization


I'm only human. I like to slice and dice what I see to explore and discern patterns. One of the most important interfaces in social bookmarking is the page for a given uri. This is constantly being tweaked and designers have a hard task. They are trying to show the users who saved the link, the tags that were used, the titles and the history for that link while throwing in things like recommendations. del.icio.us recently had a makeover that is not entirely satisfactory. The idea they had was to split the screen into well-defined areas concentrating on comments and tags and use the length of the page to show the history.

delicious-ui


The bad thing is that they've split up the metadata for each posting except for the initial post (or if you've saved that bookmark, your own entry on the bookmark). They've removed the tags from the user notes for all other entries. Also they no longer show what title each person used. You remember Ruby's Postulate don't you? You know Sam Ruby's postulate that
The accuracy of metadata is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the data and the metadata.
Here del.icio.us has succumbed to variant of that rule. The value of the metadata is reduced by being separated from the data. And indeed here there is also fragmentation of the metadata. I'd prefer to see everything in context. There's enough space to show the tags used alongside the user name, comments and title.

There's also those tag clouds, aren't they glorious?

my tag cloud dogear


Evolution


You want to see how tags vary over time and the frequency of activity but also if people are bothered enough to change the title when they entered. These are valuable things to know and indeed every such act should be celebrated.

Take the history of an article I wrote about On Gmail and DHTML architecture again. It was always DOM scripting to me but after 15 months, people had started tagging it as web2.0, webOS and bleach. You know: bleach, Bleached Unobtrusive DOM Scripting (BUDS). Fancy that, someone just came up with a snappy acronym and now people start lecturing you about things that you used to do, talking about "all you need is a bleach call" and everything will be better. Remember that Prince sang, "Put The Right Letters Together And Make A Better Day".

In visualizing the evolution over tags over time, I can imagine sparklines or perhaps another application of History Flow beyond the wikis that it was developed for. Or throw in some clustering and perhaps there could be a treemap. And perhaps there should be some animation written to dynamically show the evolution of tags. Moving images have always worked their magic.

Presence


You could probably make a case for making the names of users in pages active so that you can check their online status. Remember back when I was working on the person tag to integrate Sametime into K-station and WebSphere Portal? Yeah, it's the same idea, these days you throw in some microformat buzzword, decorate the name with an hCard something or other, throw in a contextual menu and voila, "people-enabled collaboration". Add some chat, screen sharing, profile viewing etc and you're all set. For bonus points, you can scope presence to the place, not just who's online but who's online and looking at this tag and throw in scoping to members of the current user's groups. Allow others to plug in their instant messaging systems and customize the contextual menu that is brought up and you're done. The rest is left as exercise for the eavesdropper but I'd note in passing Prior Art™ for anyone considering patenting such things.

Classification and Aggregation


Dogear has the concept of inside and outside, being able to scope a link to figure out if it is "inside" or outside the firewall. del.icio.us automatically classifies certain types of links such mp3s. You can imagine that you could present a different interface depending on what is represented by the link. If it's music, you might offer a nice link to sample the music, or buy the cd. This then gets into the issue of aggregation. In general, this argues for a generic and pluggable link classifier for other applications that want to embed these social bookmarking environments as components. Simply define the semantics of a special system tag and off you go. This arguably will allow for better-targeted user interfaces but we should also dwell on the commercial possibilities. As the Pet Shop Boys sang in Opportunities:
I've Got The Brains
You've Got The Looks
Let's Make Lot Of Money

You've Got The Brawn
I've Got The Brains
Let's Make Lot Of Money
Quel frisson de folksonomie. No wonder this stuff is hot.

Group Forming


del.icio.us allows you to suggest links to others using a special for:username tag. Dogear lets you comment on an entry. Furl builds in emailing of links thus fulfilling Zawinkski's Law. You're able to see people's names or identities and browse their links and tags. All of these gestures are ways to enable communities to form, conversations to begin and communication to flow. The photography and music sites do a much better job in the area of group forming but that is only because the content is intrinsically more interesting, bookmarks are not quite as amenable to groups, still there is much room for innovation. These services don't seem to allow you to easily discover see how many links or tags you have in common with someone. That's a feature that should be one click away. Flickr has group pools of photos with different levels of access public, private by invitation etc. Last.fm gives you shoutboxes on almost every page allowing you to comment as well as a journal. All of these leverage the tribal instinct and human propensity for orgiastic connection.

Metrics


We all seem to like statistics and there are many metrics that are interesting in this land: when things were first posted, how many people have bookmarked the same thing, who is most active, who discovers the most influential links, which tag is most popular etc. I'd like to be able to see the number of tags a user has. For example in Library Thing you'll see things like this
Tag info: The tag "current" is used 153 times by 42 users
Some of these however come to seen as popularity contests and therein lies the seed to a problem.

Attention, Arbitrage and Exploitation


The paradox of social bookmarking is that it provides considerable externalities to an ostensibly selfish endeavour. Since many of us use different computers during the day, it makes sense to have our bookmarks in the network cloud so that we don't have to deal with synchronization. These externalities mean that, like all social software, social bookmarking is prime for targeting by parasites. Arbitrage in inevitable in this environment since attention is important and a scarce commodity. Thus the mortgage and insurance tags will always get gamed by succubuses with commercial concerns and who can blame them since advertising pays. Reportedly the most expensive AdWords at Google are concerned with asbestos and mortgage refinancing and it stands to reason, we're all parasites. In my case, I hope I'm just a benign gnat on meryn's tags.

Moderation


All communities eventually need to add some filtering and moderation to keep the parasites at bay or at a tolerable level. That Clay Shirky keeps harping on the unbearable irksomeness of groups to the extent that he's trying to invent a pattern language for fighting group pathologies. That Christopher Allen thinks it's basically about the emotional amplification of text. Who knows? In any case, you'll eventually have to support flagging people as anti-social or detecting overly abusive behaviour or instituting the occasional calming periods. As group features come on board, there'll be more of an emphasis on moderation. I can also imagine a "Safe Tag"© or "Safe Bookmark"® mode just as with all search engines, something based on fuzzy notions of "community standards". Oh well, c'est la vie, it is a wild wide web.

Reconciliation


I could go on of course. But anyway all this is just beating around the bush, you understand this stuff now don't you? I've given you a folksonomy of social bookmarking off the top of my head. What more could you want?

Which reminds me, you aren't entirely blameless yourself. I've seen you seduced by the wiles of the social bookmarking scene. I saw you looking over my shoulder, spying on me as I bookmarked away these past years, saving urls to send to you on demand. And then I pointed you to Jon Udell's screencast on del.icio.us and it all clicked, that moving image thing again. You got all social scientist on me, "This could be very useful for my research". I saw you on Furl. I saw you on Flickr, I saw you on All Consuming. I saw you on 43 Things.

For you the attraction wasn't really the bookmark but rather the ability to save a copy of the page. So you can stash away things from when you're inside the campus network. I think that's why you're on Furl right? Anyway, I like that feature too, it comes in handy when lawyers or the Scientologists force people to remove their thoughts from the web. Anyway, now we're even. Don't hate me for my tags. You made me spill my guts and it turns out that you're just as selfish as me and you play the social bookmarking scene too.

I know you want to call me a social software slut but try to understand. Collaboration software has been my Lotus life, don't take that away from me. To paraphrase James Bond in Thunderball,
"You don't think I enjoyed what I did those evenings, do you? What I did was for Queen and metadata!"
Or like Dragnet, it's "Just the tags, Ma'am." That's right. That's what I'm saying.

Well anyway, with all that said, the reason I came forward today and confessed all this was that I took a big step yesterday, I feel a little guilty. Hmm... Yes I was seduced by that thing we call "integration on the glass". That's what they call it these days: it takes just one line of javascript in a webpage to bring those tags to life on a browser screen. So I put up a webpage last night. It displays my tags side by side with meryn's.

Now I promise I'll only look at the page once a month to check out that tag cloud of hers/his. I've worked out that even if more tags aren't added I have a good 25 years in which to assimilate that folksonomy.

I know we can work through this trying time. Come here, give me a hug. Sing with me.
"Spa-tu-laaaaa".
P.S. Cheers, meryn. I mean, "Cheers, Meryn".

[Ducks to avoid thrown cup of coffee]

Journal


Wait. Why are you laughing? After I've told you everything... I've come clean and you're standing there laughing at me. What's that behind your back? A book? What book? What's the title? It's about an affair? A social bookmarking affair? No... Oh. It's about Africa? And England? Let's see... Oh yeah, The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene. I remember that. Good book. It's all about how things fall apart and come together again. Good choice. I'll tag it with "fiction, observation, insight, Africa, intimacy, perception, re-reading, things fall apart" in my All Consuming account. Yeah... I agree, it's a great book by a great writer. Graham Greene believed in personal triumphs and tragedies on a bite-sized scale. I fully agree, bite-sized is all one could hope for in the 20th century. He didn't get the Nobel Prize but he's quite the conflicted conscience of that bloodthirsty century, and memorable too in his own way. I wonder who's writing today's equivalent.

The Heart of the Matter

Music


You're turning on the stereo, plugging in your iPod... Hmmm. It would stand to reason that the soundtrack for this affair would be Cherrelle's 1990 album by that name.

Cherrelle - Affair


The best albums that Jam and Lewis produced (that is Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) were not necessarily the Janet Jackson ones, much as I loved Control and Rhythm Nation. The trio of albums that best defined their great take on the Minneapolis Sound were Alexander O'Neal's Hearsay, New Edition's Heartbreak, and the album I'll highlight here, Cherrelle's Affair. Each of these albums were concept albums: a party, the perils of fame, and an affair, respectively. The music however was all soul.

Cherrelle sings about the love affair she had with Randy Ran who was one of the musicians in the Flyte Tyme stable, a frequent collaborator over the years. It was a tumultuous affair and the album consequently runs the gamut of emotions; the song titles tell the tale. There was excitement, fun and ultimately heartbreak and you are privy to the various stages of the relationship. There's the irresistible seduction of Pick Me Up
If You Really Want My Love
Just Pick Me Up...
Be A Man And Make The First Move Towards Me
If I Say Yes, Don't Worry I'll Do All The Rest
Musically the arrangement is quite spare, a few drums, a funky bass and the occasional keyboards, the emphasis is on the soulful side of things. Then there's the conspiratorial imperative of Discreet with the driving drums sounding the alarm as in the temptation, vulnerability and exuberance of Looks Aren't Everything, the blistering album opener. The title track, Affair, is classic industrial funk, better than the contemporaneous tracks Janet was gifted by that production duo. Imagine the sentiment of Janet's Nasty doubled if you will. It is driven by a righteous anger in the chorus
"What Do You Call This Thing We Had?
Are You My Woman? Are You My Man?
I Don't Need Commitment,
I Don't Need A Man To Tell Me How To Feel"
The couple of tracks that are ligher weight such as What More Can I Do For You are still fun grooves on the dancefloor.

The ballads on the b-side, however, showcase some of the most heartfelt singing I've had the pleasure to hear. She sings of things she's lived through. Interestingly enough Randy Ran co-produces the most tumultuous trio of songs. Crazy is plaintive, the desperation and longing underlined with an amazing vocal performance. It's the kind of thing that tickles your sensibility. This is the Quiet Storm that Smokey Robinson sang about. At the end she dwells on the very real friendship that was at the core of the relationship, there's real pathos in My Friend and when the horns come in during the bridge you can't help but be moved. In Lucky she sings
I Dreamed All My Life For Mr. Right
But Mr. Wrong Always Seems To Come Along

Someday I'll Be As Lucky As The Next Girl
Some Way I Know Love Will Fill My Heart
When she bemoans that "Love has turned his back on me", Randy Ran's keyboards punctuate the feeling. Oh to have been a fly on the wall of that recording session. This is a slow burner with jazz inflections which distills raw emotion.

Everything I Miss At Home is the heart of the album and she continues her musical conversation with Alexander O'Neal in this glorious duet. This follows the earlier Saturday Love, I Didn't Mean To Turn You On, and Never Knew Love (Like This). He also appears on Keep It Inside another heartbreak featured on this album. These two wonderful soul singers were the Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell of the Eighties. They had a chemistry together, hearing them sing the line "Home Is Where The Heart Is Baby" gives me the chills to the day.

The reprise of Home is two instrumental minutes of soulful bliss to close out the album, floating pianos, lush keyboards, subtle bass, atmospherics etc. The kind of thing that Jam and Lewis always threw in to let you know that these were real thinking musicians who had paid all their dues in church and in long nights of performances and jam sessions. Thus the album ends wistfully in a contemplative mood. It is surely fitting that Graham Greene also wrote that wonderful novel called The End of the Affair. I find that simply sublime, perhaps because I too aspire to manufacture serendipity on this web.

The End of The Affair


Next in part 7: Angola.

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Sunday, March 19, 2006

The REST Elevator Pitch

The Pitch

I somewhat share Ryan Tomayko's concern for a shorter hand language for describing REST (Representational State Transfer), but I believe that the REST elevator pitch is pretty succinct already. It packs a lot of insight into the web architectural style of which dissertations have been written. The language used in technical debates is always important and rather than devolving into the fuzziness of "highs and lows", I'll suggest here that, as a matter of advocacy, one should stick to the elevator pitch.

To recap, the REST elevator pitch is:
  • Identification Of Resources
  • Manipulation Of Resources Through Representations
  • Self-Descriptive Messages
  • Hypermedia As The Engine Of Application State
In its most common application, the pitch will lead you to the HUHXtable Quartet (HTTP / URI / HTML / XML) if we handwave away the additional content types that the web style enables you to negotiate. It is quite clear that applications of all kinds have been built on these fundamentals for both human and machine interaction.

The thing is that each plank of the pitch brings its own benefits, benefits that perhaps can accrue independently. Still you get the most bang for the buck at the internet scale by the principled combination of all of them.

In my advocacy I tend to start with resource identification as the most important plank. The reason for this is that everybody can understand the value of identification. My grandmother understands the value of a bookmark to my photos. Heck we are even seeing the social benefits of ostensibly selfish bookmarking. The importance of resource identification cannot be understated and it leads us to the primacy of the URI.

The second plank, manipulation of resources through representations, is the bread and butter of HTTP, where we have an evolving set of standard formats of hypermedia exchanged using a small set of verbs.

Unpacking the HTTP proposition leads us to the four horsemen of the web: GET / POST / PUT / DELETE

Of course you can do very well if you pick up only 2 of those verbs, GET and POST. The good Reverend HTTP is a pretty tolerant fellow and won't begrudge those that don't believe in the rule of four, although in admittedly imperfect analogies, there's CRUD (Create / Retrieve / Update / Delete) in the database world and, as far as this layered internet goes there's TCP / IP / Datalink / Physical Layer (with say Ethernet or "Wi-Fi" 802.11b/a/g)

On the other hand, if you want to be a good citizen in the town of Deadwood and indeed if you want to survive in the wild west of the web, you shouldn't abuse HTTP. HTTP abuse leads to user confusion, headaches for systems designers and a tragedy of the commons. I consider HTTP a deliberately minimalist compromise, laissez-faire distributed computing if you will.

In social settings making your intentions known can help smooth interactions. We may start with small talk but we eventually manage to discern where others stand - well most of the time at least. We all operate with imperfect information but being straightforward is often a great policy. I'm sure there's some game theory or behavioural economics that can point to the value of transparency. Perhaps it is trite in light of Machiavelli and Sun-Tzu to believe that disclosure is the best policy but at least in markets transparency tends to be the font of aggregated wisdom. On the internet scale, this translates into the notion of giving visibility to intermediaries. Arguing again by analogy, the internet is an agreement, a network of networks. You can do whatever you want on your network but to interoperate with others, a small set of primitives, the TCP/IP standards in this case, have been agreed upon. I would suggest that the web style is similarly such an overlay system. REST is an architectural style which by principled design, is optimized to lower coordination costs.

Acknowledging the benefits of idempotency, of doing things safely, will lead one to making sure the use of GET is safe. Idempotency is not just about safety however; in clearly signaling your intentions, it is also about replayability. Thus idempotency is not just about the GET method. That is the wider argument for also using that oft-neglected duo, PUT and DELETE. Tunneling everything through POST (and the completely aberrant case GET) may be convenient but it adds unnecessary opacity and unpredictability about one's application. Unpredictability in the world leads to invasions and worse I might add. The use of those four core HTTP verbs helps intermediaries understand and participate more fully in the ecosystem.

The last two planks of the REST elevator pitch, self-descriptive messages, and especially that last one, hypermedia as the engine of application state, are attempts at addressing the issues of state, caching and evolving systems amongst other things.

Now of course in the preceding paragraphs, I've handwaved away entire dissertations that have been written about architectural styles and systems design, tomes written with language more precise and concepts more subtle than I've outlined. Good samples and running code are often also a determining factor in which style or application is adopted thus the view source imperative is also one of the reasons that web has caught on so quickly.

The Hard Problems


I've recently been thinking about defining the hardest problems I've encountered in software engineering, my cursory top 10 list:
  • State
  • Caching
  • Latency
  • Concurrency
  • Search
  • Metadata
  • Persistence
  • The Holy Grail Of Extensibility
  • Structured data
  • Character encoding
Now I'm not a database person so I handwaved away all of those data peoples' worries in one word: persistence. Of course I should probably add a few more issues and indeed you probably have your own notions. Indeed I settled just two days ago on those last two, structured data and character encoding, when I characterized them as being the gruesome twosome of computer science. Perhaps also there's the issue of discovery and bootstrapping of a system but that could be considered implementation details. There are those who mention security and reliability as other hard problems and they certainly are. Still I'll also handwave those away not as technological issues but as transaction costs; the economic benefits of ubiquity and leverage are key here. It seems that humans are quite prepared to tolerate gremlins and parasites in their systems (social, biological and technological) in moderation of course.

What is interesting is that almost all of these issues are important even if you aren't dealing with distributed computing. On the internet, which is all about distributed computing however, these are crucial problems. Now addressing these problems is a pretty tall order I must admit, but it seems to me that the web style has concrete answers to almost all of these constraints. Furthermore REST also offers a couple of those very valuable system characteristics: resilience and adaptability, almost as externalities.

Search for example seems to be addressed by valuing the importance of resource identification, the URI, that leads to PageRank and other algorithms. If you start with a viewpoint that URIs are cheap, and if you model your resources appropriately, you can deal with concurrency quite reasonably. State, caching and latency are all to do with performance which is always a bear. To that I'd argue that the commerce that is taking place daily on the internet seems to be a good indication that things are acceptable even if they could be improved. Metadata is the eternal headache of course but HTTP will give you headers and soul to help a little.

Discovery is addressed by URI as identification, the notion of hypermedia (either link headers or references in the media) and perhaps the current best practices of introspection resources. Persistence and structured data, I'll argue, are being addressed, warts and all, by the relational database, the seemingly-unstoppable spread of XML and, I believe, the current ascendancy of feeds. On this last subject, the wiring of the web, I am cautiously optimistic that the Atom store dream could be an answer; i.e. the combination of feed format (say Atom/RSS) and a wire protocol - which perhaps the Atom Publishing Protocol or similar could be. On the question of extensibility, last year I started a response that I felt was needed due to Dion Hincliffe's unbelievable assertion that "extensibility was the Achilles heel of REST". It always takes me a year to respond to minor footnotes but if there's one thing I'll do in the next few months, I'll be sure to write about REST and the Holy Grail of Extensibility.

But anyway, that is getting ahead of myself. I've been told to save my musings for "the book" or to stick to writing the running code that will "show, rather than tell" yet I keep falling for this web as conversational engine. Still there are undoubted social benefits of these exchanges and perhaps conversations like these are another virtue and externality of the web style. In any case, consider this my long winded response, Ryan: in matters of technology adoption and systems design, let's stick to the elevator pitch.

Further reading:

The Sequel


[Update - March 27, 2006] It seems as if everyone is getting into shaping the pitch and the language has been quite interesting.
  • Danny Ayers remarked that we should go back to the source and points at Tim Berners-Lee's pitch from last year
    Web architecture 101
    • Things are denoted by URIs.
    • Use them to denote things.
    • Serve useful information at them.
    • Dereference them.
    That indeed is about as brief a pitch as some executives will be able to handle and it covers the essentials.
  • Tim Bray's pitch is fairly pithy too, and for the last plank he uses
    You expect to ship a lot of URIs around in the bodies of requests and responses, and use them in operations that feel like link following.
    Now that's quite a mouthful in a presentation but it works fine in an elevator. I think "dereference them" is more terse and captures much of the same insight.

    As an engineer who is interested in precision in language, I tend to prefer Roy Fielding's formulation of "hypermedia as engine of application state". It's short and alludes to both the implementation and the area of focus of the web style. But your mileage may vary and I think it depends on the audience. We should be interested in a pitch that works because the advocacy struggle isn't over even if some are already thinking about the future issues. In this light, it was good to see Joe Gregorio again emphasizing the Show me the code route he embarked on last year. That View Source Imperative is the secret ingredient as far as adoption goes.
Note that everyone seems to conform to the Rule of Four as far as bullet points in the pitch go. Interestingly enough, Roy Fielding used to go with a five point pitch until he merged what were his previously separate definitions of "resource" and "URI" into the phrase "Identification Of Resources". I've proposed my own four point plan as a model for ArRESTed Development or The Low End Theory.

I concur of course with the endorsement of the formulation of REST - the web style and not just because I seem to have juice (of the google flavour) on that front having internalized that phrase long ago in my interventions, but because it gives us a tag, REST, combined with a catchphrase. As we know, every movie needs a tag line. Especially in Deadwood: "6 million ways to die, choose one". That is the B-movie of distributed computing. We want to move beyond grindhouse pulp fiction and get some of those glamourous, golden Hollywood trophies. And if that fails there's always the Gospel of REST.

The Elevator Soundtrack

  • Outkast - Elevators (Me & You)
    The chorus of this laidback piece of Atlanta folklore could well be a stand-in for the inclusiveness of the web style and its architecture of participation.
    Me and You
    Your Momma and Your Cousin Too
    Rollin' Down The Strip On Vogues
    Comin' Up Slammin' Cadillac Doors
  • [Update] A hat tip to the good doctor, Ernie Prabhakar, who points to a real life Huxtable Quartet. When I first started using HUHXtable, I was thinking of the Cosby Show and of comfy sweaters, thus it's great to hear that the Slide Huxtable Quartet is itself a tribute to that show and to the "Play It Again, Russell" episode in which Cliff's father, trombonist Russell "Slide" Huxtable (Earl Hyman) hosts a jam session. REST has even got a house band.
  • Miles Davis - Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud
    I've always loved Miles Davis's cool soundtrack to one of the great film noirs which saw a great print released last year. It's atmospheric and gets the job done - and with verve. I am always upset that ascenseur is translated as lift rather than elevator which is more heady to my ears. I'll conclude by suggesting that the web style will save you from heading up the Elevator to the Gallows.


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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Heart of Darkness

Part 5 of the Things Fall Apart series - in which we head down the river...

Mr Metaphor


Once he found his voice, the man the world would know as Joseph Conrad would be at once compelling and infuriating. He had travelled widely in the British merchant navy, observing the colonial enterprise from a seaman's perspective. It took a while for him to settle into the style of storytelling that would win him renown but, once he found his voice, he was prolific. He tended to mix personal meditations and psychological portraits with a broad brush of metaphors (pun intended). Late in his writing life, this latter aspect would lead to his work losing his earlier audience. Still the works he produced when he was on form endure to this day.

Heart of Darkness is a slender novel, it is short, sweet, muddled and, as befits the title, murky. It's the story of a journey and at barely 100 pages in my edition, you can read it in a couple of hours. For almost a century, this has been the novel that people have used to characterize Africa. Indeed Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart has taken almost half a century to surpass its influence. Short of safaris, wild animals, poverty, famine and warfare, popular notions of Africa have not been of normalcy (of say skyscrapers, markets and factories) but have rather been informed by Conrad's visions.

heart of darkness


I've long been interested in the creative spark, in finding out what sets an artist off. In this respect, Heart of Darkness looms large in its influence. The Norton critical edition augments it with more scholarship than almost anyone can absorb. Even as you read my ruminations, secondary school children the world over are writing papers on its themes. A cottage industry of Cliff Notes exegesis has obviously blossomed on its fertile ground. Beyond interpretation however, it is worth pointing out a few works that seem to draw from its premise.

But first, what of Conrad's own creative spark? Well Conrad wrote the novel at the turn of the century 8 years after making his trip to Congo in the 1890s. Thus he was writing at a remove from his experience. Yet there is immediacy in the story, it isn't merely a mythical journey. Conrad wrote at a time when the "Congo Issue" was being raised in the press - namely the quite vigourous campaign against the egregious human rights violations that King Leopold's men had been perpertrating for decades in his personal fiefdom of the Congo. Perhaps the headlines of the time prompted Conrad to put to paper some of what he had seen.

The plot, as it is, is stark: the unreliable narrator, Marlow, recounts his experience heading down the Congo river to encounter the agent, Kurtz, who one learns is a larger than life character who has become unhinged. The atmospheric journey is the point of the novel. You are led into an environment that is meant to be impenetrable and alien. Darkness prevails both physical and metaphorical. The fascination mounts about Kurtz who is variously described as "a prodigy", "a remarkable person, he gets more ivory than all the others", a "universal genius".

candy factory demolished


The writing is hallucinatory, Conrad has a talent for repetition and incantatory description. Some characterize Heart of Darkness as a meditation on man's capacity for evil, that is, as a psychological jumping point for examining the eternal human story. Others perceive it as an indictment of the rapacity of King Leopold's excesses - a legacy which still haunts Congo today. If there wasn't quite a cyncism about the colonial enterprise in the novel, it could still be read as an illustration of the costs of the effort. One problem with the purely psychological reading however is that those who are affected are rough sketches at best. In the biblical tale, Cain and Abel were brothers and started out as equals, in Kurtz's Congo however, the victims are the proverbial wretched of the earth and are worth only cursory descriptions.

It is a truism that when you're building empires, rules don't apply. This covers a spectrum that ranges from noblesse oblige through exceptionalism and, in Conrad's time, to Social Darwinist Alley. Idées fixes abounded in the attitudes towards the "savage people" that were being colonized. Euphemisms reigned supreme and a missionary zeal to uplift the conquered peoples prevailed. Throughout history, such encounters proved catastrophic for those on the losing side. To the winners however come the obvious material spoils and the fringe benefits of superiority complexes.

It is no surprise then that "Mr Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts". The whispers along the river are that he is considered some sort of "Superior Being". The shock to reader however is the extent of the moral decay and corruption. It queered the self image of the whole enterprise. We read graphic evidence of how low people can sink when unmoored from any checks and balances. The enduring image of the tale is of the ghastly decorations, the decapitated human skulls staked to the ground that surround Kurtz's house. Bromides of an uplifting mission are harder to countenance in light of such scenes.

King Leopold


The metaphorical Heart of Darkness that Conrad wrote about is something rooted in the unparalleled brutality perpetrated on the Congo. Adam Hochschild spent some time in King Leopold's Ghost situating the novel in its proper historical context. Kurtz is based on historical figures and perhaps people that Conrad himself met during his four month expedition. The reality of Congo's colonial past was indeed conscription, forced marches (your basic slave labour) and summary amputations all in service of ivory, rubber and the good King Leopold. It is estimated that 10 million died under this regime.

Hochschild points out any number of men who could have served as prototypes for Kurtz including Captain Léon Rom who famously kept a collection of severed African heads around his garden. Sentences like the last one are part of the power of the shock of that episode. If Conrad's novelistic indictment helped stem such outrages, Heart of Darkness would have served its purpose.

Near the end of the tale, Marlow finds Kurtz's "masterpiece" writings which are dryly titled "Suppression of Savage Customs" - the scrawled inscription on them is "Kill the brutes". This little detail should resonate for readers of Things Fall Apart, the report written by the colonial administrator in Achebe's story has a very similar title.

heart of darkness

Burnt-Out Cases


Graham Greene almost satirized Conrad in his 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case. A man heads to a leper colony in Congo where he is diagnosed as a burnt-out case; he seeks solace in helping the lepers in the institution. Greene takes Conrad's tale but adds nuance - the vivid imagery, Conrad's impenetrable darkness, is substituted by the shades of grey that were Greene's natural inclination. This is one of Greene's strongest novels, one that is sometimes (and wrongly I believe) counted as one of his "Catholic" novels. It is the same framework however: Africa as the place people come to for redemption or escape. The difference here is that the jaundiced viewpoint of the twentieth century informs Greene's treatment of the Heart of Darkness. He acknowledges upfront that "this Congo is a region of the mind".

The language also is instructive and it is interesting to see the progression. Writing 60 years after Conrad's novel, we've moved from Heart of Darkness to Burnt-Out Cases. This is undoubtedly progress. I suspect that burn-out, or perhaps its counterpart, things fall apart, is more tractable than heart of darkness. With occasional breaks and maintenance the human animal can keep going, indeed, if you throw in a change of perspective, we can go from strength to strength.

the machines


Chinua Achebe has said that he wrote Things Fall Apart as a response to Heart of Darkness and other books in that vein, novels he felt that at best short-changed Africa and at worst were viscerally objectionable. I love literary spats and Achebe got himself in the midst of a great one. In quite plain language, he noted that "Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist" amongst other weighty charges in his famous 1977 polemic An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. In that lecture he laid into the sacred cow of Heart of Darkness, finding all manner of things awful in the novel. He conflates Marlow and Conrad, argues against the language, the setting and the entire story.

It continues to enervate him to this day as Caryl Phillips found out in a 2003 interview, The case against Conrad:
"Africa as setting and backdrop, which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril."
This is "arrogance", "perversity" and worse in Achebe's eyes.

The thing is that Conrad is too easy a target. You can open the novel at almost any page and find something objectionable. For example:
We had enlisted some of these chaps on the way for a crew. Fine fellows - cannibals - in their place. They were men one could work with, and I am grateful to them. And after all, they did not eat each other before my face: they had brought along a provision of hippo-meat which went rotten, and made the mystery of the wilderness stink in my nostrils. Phoo! I can sniff it now.
There is a gruesome humour in these attitudes but even if you think it is despicable, or that the author had a pernicious intent, it is humour nevertheless.

While Achebe strikes home on some of his points, I think his novelistic output is a better counterpoint and response to Conrad. The deep-seated resentment of the colonial enterprise and its concomittant disdain and exploitation of Africa drove Achebe to write his own tales and to change the perspective. This impetus led to a blossoming of modern African literature. Why exercise oneself about this novel? It is true that travel writing seems to have a disproportionate influence in the world. I'll note in passing how Robert Kaplan's The Coming Anarchy seized Bill Clinton and Madelaine Albright's imagination and informed their response to Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. I'll confess that I quite like Conrad's tale, it's a great achievement and obviously much more than mere "travel writing". It certainly doesn't bother me; I'm writing my own stories of Africa.

For an example of a more telling critique and one that I think is far more powerful, we can turn to Vladimir Nabokov who famously dismissed Conrad (and Ernest Hemingway mind you) as "writers of books for boys":
I cannot abide Conrad's souvenir-shop style, bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist cliches. In neither of those two writers can I find anything that I would care to have written myself. In mentality and emotion, they are hopelessly juvenile.
That is the more insightful and damning critique, in just a few words Nabokov stabs Conrad's work in its heart - and its style and substance is found wanting.

Things Fall Apart brought to the fore different ways of writing about Africa that broadened the context beyond standard tropes and travel pieces and put Africans at the center of the narrative. At the same time, who's to say that Africans are better writers on Africa? V.S. Naipaul and Graham Greene stand as masterly writers about the continent whose works display the same rich textures and emotional fortitude. More recently William Boyd's A Good Man in Africa or Brazzaville Beach stand up to much contemporary African literature - indeed I claim him as an African rather than an English writer, and not just because he was born in Ghana. Moving outside the continent, Madison Smartt Bell has just completed the definitive fictional works on Haiti - who knew that Toussaint L'Ouverture would be reincarnated from a home office in Baltimore, Maryland?

sweet shell

Black Mischief


Jerome Weidman wrote the following on Evelyn Waugh's Black Mischief.
To achieve greatness... satire must be rooted not only in a genuine love for the object being satirized but also in an awareness of the object's relation to the entire human condition, regardless of race, color, creed, or geography
He was shrewdly anticipating what would be an almost politically correct response to Waugh's musings by many critics and pointing out a way to deflect those charges. The novel is not as savage a satire as Vile Bodies or A Handful of Dust, but it remains one of his funniest novels, brimming with great set pieces and a sustained wit that powers the narrative. There are no sacred cows and everyone is thoroughly lampooned.

black mischief


Broke and after running into more jams than one can count, a young Basil Seal flees Britain for Azania, a barely-fictionalized Zanzibar. Waugh provides a picture-perfect rendering of colonial administration in the 1930s. This is a portrait of decrepitude, of second-chance has-beens reinventing themselves in faraway lands as overlords, of the casual racism and solipsism of the colonists, of intrigues between the English, French and the German who worry about their spheres of influence and the profit imperative. The Emperor Seth, who had been Basil's contemporary at Oxford, aims to come back and modernize the country. The two eventually combine to implement the various absurd reforms which have no practicality or relevance to his "subjects". The portrait of the English in foreign lands is never pretty, let alone when they occupy positions of power and Waugh delights in showing them at their worst. After all, only in colonial times could a ne'er-do-well leave his country and promptly become an Imperial Minister. There are even animal rights ladies who have come to do something about the treatment of the livestock on the island completely glossing over the mindless treatment meted out to the locals, the Azanians who mind the livestock.

Waugh follows Conrad's motif, the journey into the dark, impenetrable Other but he takes a keen satirist's eye and wrecks gleeful havoc along the way. As an author, Waugh is completely unsentimental about human relations and motivations. It isn't contempt for his characters but rather a recognition that in life much occurs that is unfair and absurd. Laughter is the coping mechanism for his keenly felt outrage. Unlike Conrad however, he is an equal opportunity satirist, the "locals" are given as nuanced a portrait as the "colonists" and they are similarly doomed and knowingly characterized. I would add this extremely funny and bittersweet novel to Greene's as the best artistic take on Heart of Darkness.

By the Sea


Abdulrazak Gurnah's great novel By the Sea presents a perfect reversal of this idea. Quite simply, it inverts Black Mischief and Heart of Darkness. In this case it's an old Arab trader who arrives from Zanzibar at Heathrow airport and eventually finds himself in a guest house in coastal England while his immigration case is considered. At length he is joined by a young man, a fellow countryman. It is only in a sedate bed-and-breakfast that the two protagonists can resolve issues that their families had back on their island. The novel concerns itself with their tangled history.

England in the novel is the place of escape and refuge. Here it is literal exile, the one is an asylum seeker. The meat of the story however is in the implications of their former lives in Zanzibar. Gurnah has said "Places don’t live just where they are, they live within you". This sentiment points to all writers' urge to project and in his novel, Zanzibar is projected onto East Sussex to a quite sublime effect.

only in london


Less successful artistically is Only in London by Hanan Al-Shaykh which is also in this vein of using the West as a stepping stone for purely local concerns - Al-Shaykh is Lebanese. It's a fun read, a ribald comedy with a mass of stereotypes, four strangers who head to London and their misadventures. It's nothing too weighty; it features an Iraqi divorcée contemplating an arranged marriage, a high-class Moroccan prostitute, an English connaisseur of Arabic art, a young gay Lebanese man (and a smuggled monkey). What is instructive however is to read some of the reviews by western critics. Many are upset that London is not a character in the novel, in their eyes the story could have been set anywhere. And that's the point I suppose; for Al-Shaykh, London is indeed a mere backdrop, the heart of the city is barely scratched. The characters don't step out beyond say Harrods or other predictable landmarks. The English characters are the proverbial Other and barely drawn. As a Londoner, I couldn't recognize the soul of the city yet, as someone who has read much fiction about Africa, I could recognize the trend: London as Conrad's river Congo and those chattering savages on the banks of the river Thames, a cacophony to be ignored. Only in London is thus an ironic title, for that alone, the novel is worth reading.

Apocalypse Now


"I love the smell of napalm in the morning" is the line that everyone remembers from Apocalypse Now and Robert Duvall's improvisation is fitting for the most famous adaptation of Conrad's tale. Francis Ford Coppola's epic movie bursts with more ideas and quotable nuggets than one can handle. It is more than a war movie, indeed Coppola has quipped: "The film wasn't about Vietnam, it was Vietnam". The haze of the journey and the futility of war is illustrated at length. The cynicism of the Vietnam enterprise is exposed in all its dubious glory. The image of Marlon Brando's Kurtz when we meet him is as disturbing as one would expect and his final monologue as unnerving and hallucinatory as Conrad would have wanted.

Apocalypse Now


It is said that Francis Ford Coppola almost lost his mind during the filming as depicted in his wife's documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. His leading man suffered a heart attack, his Kurtz arrived massively overweight (Brando as prima donna), his other actors were out of control. There was hubris (filming without a complete script), it was over budget, the weather didn't help etc. It's a mess as befits the title, but we all love it and it is firmly embedded in the pop culture of the world.

The scene of the helicopters sweeping into into action is iconic. Like Oddball's Sherman tanks in Kelly's Heroes, they head into war with Wagner's Valkyries playing. It is fascist in the extreme but very exciting cinema. War is glamourous and such scenes have their own perverse logic. In the film, Kurtz's book bears the inscription "Drop the bomb, exterminate them all". Ironically, despite being conceived as an anti-war film, Apocalypse Now is motivational fodder and a sort of war pornography for soldiers as evidenced in Anthony Swofford's Jarhead and its recent film treatment.

Still, I keep waiting for the definitive Vietnamese or Cambodian response to Apocalypse Now and its ilk, the Full Metal Jackets of the world. For it must surely come, in whatever medium. It can't sit well to be considered a mere backdrop, let alone a playground for Agent Orange and worse.

"The horror! The horror!" are Kurtz's famous last words in Conrad's work. When Marlow returns home however, he reports a white lie to Kurtz's fiancée, and perhaps to the reader, namely that
"The last word he pronounced - was your name."
Africa has seen much that can lead to the heart of darkness. From Sierra Leone and Liberia to Rwanda, and perhaps the current slow burn in Sudan, there is much that is hallucinatory. True, such scenes aren't the complete picture but they are an integral aspect of our outlook and one that bears meditating on. Writers, musicians and all artists inform our received notions about the continent. They are griots urging us beyond journalistic copy. Whenever I finish reading Heart of Darkness or any of the works that have followed its path, my response is to return to questions that I ponder daily:
What is the cement of African society? And how can it be strengthened?


See also in part 4: Chinua Achebe's voices inside Things Fall Apart.

Next in part 6: Frisson de Folksonomie

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