I’m moving the blog up a bit to http://www.sowinglight.com.

I dig the blog-as-a-service and exposure from being a wordpress site, but have a romantic attachment to my own domain name, want control over my code and css, and don’t want to pay to play on WordPress. So that’s the story. As of now the latest post is http://sowinglight.com/2008/11/can-newspapers-be-saved, and you can always find the latest at http://www.sowinglight.com.


I’m thinking about social networks, and an apple falls on my head. The geeks were on this train eight years ago, but no one noticed. And you know what? They’re still on the same train, and no one notices. FOAF, or ‘Friend of a Friend’ is a formal, computer understandable way of declaring who knows who. Put a bunch of FOAF documents together, and bing, you’ve got a social network. FOAF started a good long time ago, as part of the grass roots technical effort behind the fabled Semantic Web, but just like the Semantic Web, it never hit its growth spurt.

I googled FOAF – 6 and a half million results. Not bad.

Facebook? 36 million. “Social Network”? 15 million. OpenSocial? nearly 11 million.

And FOAF had a six year head start. Eight in the case of OpenSocial.


What factors make FOAF just a footnote? A few things –

1) It’s hard – FOAF is all about geeks, from beginning to end. Writing a FOAF document is hard, getting it online is hard, and doing anything with it is hard. The potential market of the technology is limited by its form. The technology was never put within reach of the masses.

2) It’s boring – Who cares if one computer coder is friends with another? The declaration of this knowledge is computationally interesting, but it doesn’t do anything. There’s no sizzle to sell. It creates a social graph, but there’s no socializing happening.

3) It’s artificial – In FOAF, the social connections aren’t created organically, they have to be constructed. If sending an email created a FOAF connection, that would be organic. As it stands now, someone has to go out and document reality. If you want to document reality, it’s much better if the reality forges its own documentation.


Let’s look at Facebook, on the other hand. It looses points on the technical purity and openness scale; it’s a big mean closed network. But it gets the three points above spot on.

1) It’s stupid easy to use – there’s barely any barrier to entry at all. Point and click, instant gratification, AJAX love.

2) It’s exciting – on Facebook you can see pictures of people who you might want to date. There has never been a more powerful engine for technical adoption. Period.

3) It’s organic – I create connections on facebook by going about my daily business – talking to people, showing off, looking for love, complementing others, planning a party, building a cause. It’s all sorts of organic; it’s useful.


Easy, exciting, and organic. Can we do the same thing for other otherwise doomed Semantic Web technologies? How do you make OWL easy, exciting, and organic? Would love to hear your insights.

The language of marketing is the language of hunting. Who are we aiming for? What segment are we trying to capture? Who are we setting our sights on? What’s our target audience?

The language itself implicitly sets up a power dynamic, and it’s easy to fall into a mindset of manipulation. In this mindset, the market exists to be taken advantage of, fleeced, used for the good of the organization.

Taken on a more healthy level, the question of market is really the question of relationship. Who are we relating to? Who are we in conversation with? Ideally, the relationship should be one of full information and consent – not manipulation.

Here are a few questions to ask if you’re working to identify your market. Use the ones that make the most sense to your situation.

  • Need – who has the greatest need for what we have to offer?
  • Demand – who is ready, willing, and able to enter this relationship with us?
  • Impact – where can we have the greatest impact? Where can we do the most good?
  • Passion – What interests us?

I’m currently working with a client on the question of market. Before facing the question, we had to do a good amount of work on clarifying the mission of the organization – you need some sense of who you are before you can come into a relationship. Even with that initial sense of mission, tackling the question of market is making them rethink who they are. Relationship can do that to a person.

Joel Spolsky, in case you hadn’t noticed, just writes intelligent insightful stuff. He seems to have been on a blogging break for the past few weeks, and I’ve actually missed him. Now he’s back, and his latest piece has my brain thumping. In it, he speaks about the 5 Whys, originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota.

(digression: When I was young, my father drove a Toyota. It must have been 20 years old. The antenna was missing, and the frame was beginning to rust away, but the car just kept going. When I went to buy a car, I looked at the Ford Focus. In Israel the Focus is actually a very sweet car; we get the European models, totally different than the US models. The Focus drove tight, had lots of power, and was kitted out with all sorts of cool stuff inside. Then I tried the Toyota Corolla. It wasn’t as sexy, it didn’t have all the gear – it was boring, and it was the same price. Then I realized – they must have put the money in to something. If it wasn’t the MP3 radio and kitted out interior, it was probably the things you can’t see – like the engine. I bought the Toyota.)

The idea behind ‘5 whys’ is to keep asking ‘why’ until you get to the root cause of a problem. There’s nothing holy about 5, fell free to add another few whys if it suits you. I decided to tackle a problem with the 5 whys, and at the risk of being overly self-referential, here’s what I came up with:

Problem: I’m not blogging on a regular basis

  • Why? I find myself not possessed with ideas worth communicating.
  • Why? I get involved in routine things, and not things that stretch my brain.
  • Why? I somehow feel like doing really interesting things would be wasting time.
  • Why? I get caught in a hamster mindset, where I have to do things that are immediately demonstrably valuable, but not really long term contributions.
  • Why? I don’t maintain consciousness of the unique contribution my soul can make to the world.

The question I’m holding now is what to do with the realization. Better yet – knowing a low-level cause, and that cause being a matter of ingrained outlook, how do I bring myself into the more healthy mindset that I’d like to? How do I plant, deep down, the realization that the real valuable contributions I have to make to the world are coming from within?

Every year for the past few years, a host of the brightest minds are asked a probing question. Their answers are intriguing and sometimes striking. It’s called the edge question, and 2008’s questions is ‘What have you changed your mind about?’ The results are at edge.org.

While we’re talking about what brilliant people are thinking about, have you seen TED?

Amazon has announced it’s next software-as-a-service play – SimpleDB – and the technical world is all a-flutter. You can see the breathless reporting all over the net. Is this the beautiful panacea of unleashed database power it’s being reported as?

A few months back, I examined S3 and EC2 (two of Amazon’s earlier web service offerings) and came away with the sense that Amazon is changing the rules of the game in a big way, but that there is still no good way to implement an online scalable database with these services. (I know that there are attempts to put a relational database on EC2, but they seem to be quite painful.)

In short, S3 is a great scalable online file system, and EC2 is a great scalable processor. Neither one of them allows us the sort of slicing, dicing, remixing, and re-serving of data that the world has come to expect from a database.

So when the news of SimpleDB hit the wires, I figured that Amazon was stepping up to answer my cry and providing an online scalable database. Well, they are, and they aren’t.

They are providing a way to store structured information online, but it’s hard to call it a database. In fact, it’s a bit disingenuous of them to do so.

Those who are concerned about the details can quickly find out for themselves that SimpleDB has nothing to do with the Relational Model that has been the basis for databases for the past 40 years. To call something that doesn’t even smell like the relational model a database is pure marketing.

But let’s leave the marketing aside – the service is in the field, it’s a totally new beast, and it’s called what it’s called. What does it look like? It looks like a place to store object instances. No classes, no schema, they-are-just-what-they-look-like, object instance. Besides coming with a whole new metamodel, it comes without a lot of the sugar that mature database systems have led us to expect. There’s no fulltext search, queries are lexicographic (so they don’t deal well with numbers or dates), the set of operators on a query is more limited than we’re used to, there’s no verification of the data, no triggers, etc.

All this is fun, but the real kicker is this – reading data from SimpleDB immediately after a write may not reflect the latest updates. This is called eventual consistency. That’s what you tell your customers – it’ll get there eventually.

What happens now? What happens now is that the developers start to relearn the way they handle data. No existing database applications – back-end, front-end, or middleware – can be easily ported to run on top of this new beast. You can’t tell your customers that the data will get there eventually, so you tell your developers to cover the gap. This service might save you a database administrator, but in the near term, you’ll need another developer to take his place.

In the long term, we’ll start seeing SimpleDB, S3, and EC2 aggregated under another layer – one that presents the tried and true relational model. SimpleDB will handle the tuples, S3 will handle the BLOBS, EC2 will grind the queries, and the application developer won’t have to worry about it. Whether Amazon delivers it or someone else does, it’s coming – the reliable online scalable database.

(Some of the sharper analyses: O’reilly compares pricing of SimpleDB to S3, Marcelo smells a familiar data model, Inside Looking Out lays out some of the technical hurdles, rc3 wonders how to tune it, and the comment from daveadams sings a love song to the relational model)

I just spoke with a friend about the mission and structure of an organization he’s setting up. He floated a few ideas past me. On some of them, his eyes lit up and he almost jumped out of his seat. On others, he slumped in his seat, and looked as if he would much rather be somewhere else. Why would he even bother considering the latter? All sorts of external pressure – what he thinks the funders want, pressures from the other people mixed in to the organization, a nagging sense of what’s supposed to be done. All sorts of nonsense.

It’s going to take a whole lot of energy to make an organization work. Without excitement about what you’re doing, you’re dead in the water. When you’re planning out a business, excitement is the compass. When you’re running it, excitement is the gas. Maybe some people get excited about the money; I supposed such things are possible (if a bit twisted.) The best workers in any job are the ones who are excited about the job. Certainly, the leaders of a non-profit better be all sorts of excited about the mission and about the organization.

Other factors come in, for sure – you need to build an organization that can succeed, you need to keep up a good relationship with your funders, you need to build a team that can work well together. None of these things should be done in a way that squelches the excitement that the leaders of the organization have. If you allow that to happen, you’re hobbling the horse before it leaves the gate.