The Gist of Things

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence the lack of links.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

It’s interesting to see how we’ve changed in the past few years.

If you had predicted that we could follow someone’s activities by accessing a single page, right down to where they were, what restaurant they’d visited, where they’d been on holiday, what they were reading, what they were listening to, their employment history, what had made them laugh or cry, the reaction would probably have been somewhat negative.

Back then we had a different idea of privacy.

We basically saw privacy as a garden fence. Only neighbors could look in—unless they’ve got telescopes and twitching curtains. Our privacy wasn’t exactly a massive wall, but a shared understanding that there was a kind of wicker fence, or hedge, between us and the outside world.

Nowadays—maybe five years on—our views have changed. Well, they haven’t really changed, because I don’t think we really ponder it too much. Perhaps we’ve just tacitly accepted that the garden fence no longer exists.

This is probably because the benefits of accepting this outweigh the disadvantages.

Let’s look at the first bit again. If we befriend people on Facebook, we share with them tonnes of personal information, from our birthdays to our kids’ photos to our views and thoughts on the world, revealing either directly or indirectly all sorts of things about our lives.

Two friends died recently and Facebook was the vector for not only that information but for the grieving process of all their friends and relatives.

What was private or intimate is now public or semi-public.

LinkedIn blasts our CVs out there for everyone to see. What we once treated as confidential is now public—including our yearnings for another job. If you doubt me, scroll down to the bottom of a LinkedIn page and you’ll see how many people have opted to include the line “interested in career opportunities”. I’m surprised this doesn’t put more bosses’ noses out of joint.

Then there’s twitter: Every thing we feel, think, or get irked by is out there for everyone to see.

Music sites like Last.fm and Pandora share what you’re listening to, while Google Latitude and foursquare share your location.

You can get a sense of how all this fits together—and why, perhaps, it’s not such a bad thing—when you try out services like Gist. Gist assembles all the people in your address book and creates sort of virtual pages for them, populating each with whatever it can find on the Internet about them.

So, their LinkedIn page, their twitter feed, their MySpace page, their blog, any mentions of them in the media, are all collected together, alongside your email exchanges with them and other people involved in those email exchanges. Calendar entries, and email attachments, are all there easily found and reconciled.

The result is a somewhat disconcerting, but very useful, page which tells you everything you need to know about that person in order to remain in contact.

Indeed, that’s the purpose of Gist: to turn business networking into more of a science and less an art. You can see when you last communicated with them—and whether you should ping them to keep things bubbling.

Gist has even bought a service that flashes photos of your contacts at you to help you remember who they are.

From a privacy point of view, it’s unnerving to see your details so readily collated in someone else’s address book. And from a human point of view, it’s scary to see the personal reduced to a few algorithms and search spiders.

But it’s actually very useful, and turns our familiar tools of email and contact books into something more dynamic.

I don’t care so much about staying in touch with business contacts; I do, however, like to be able to see what my friends and colleagues have been talking about. And to be able to see all that on one page is a boon.

It bypasses both my address book and my email service. Gist finds pictures of the people I’m corresponding with before I’ve even met them. (Some surprises are in store: Not everyone is the gender you think they are.)

This, in short, is what has happened to our notions of privacy. What once would have been considered somewhat creepy stalking is now considered a valid means of staying on top of all the people and bits and pieces in your professional life.

No more garden fences. Now it’s more like a permanent open house cum garage sale, where anyone can poke around as much as they like.

And maybe offer you a job.

The TiddlyWiki Report, Part I: Jonny LeRoy

This week’s WSJ.com/AWSJ column is about the TiddlyWiki (here, when it appears Friday), which I reckon is a wonderful tool and a quiet but major leap forward for interfaces, outliners and general coolness. I had a chance to chat with some of the folk most closely involved in TiddlyWikis, but sadly couldn’t use much of their material directly, so here is some of the stuff that didn’t fit.

First off, an edited chat with Jonny LeRoy, a British tech consultant who offered his view on TiddlyWikis over IM:

Loose Wire: ok, thanks… i’m doing a little piece on tiddlywikis, and was intrigued to hear how you got into them, how you use them, where you think they might be of use, how they might develop etc…
Jonny LeRoy: sure. I first came across them when a colleague sent round a link. The thing that hooked me was the “install software” page which just said – “you’ve already got it”. I’ve been doing web stuff (mainly Java server side development) for quite a while and seeing the immediacy of the tiddlywiki was great. I’ve tried all sorts of tools for managing thoughts and tasks and generally end up going back to pen and paper after a while. tiddlywiki is fast and easy enough for me to keep using it. The micro-content idea is pretty interesting but I’m also pretty interested in how they slot into general progressions in the “Web 2.0”. more and more functionality can now be pushed client side – especially with Ajax and related async javascript technologies. TiddlyWiki takes this to the extreme by pushing *everything* client-side …
That does raise the problem of sharing and syncing the data, but it’s not really in essence a collaborative tool. though there’s no reason why that can’t be added on top of what’s there. Does that make some sense?
Loose Wire: it does. very well put…
Jonny LeRoy: cheers 😉
Loose Wire: 🙂 i particularly like the tagging idea, which you seem to have introduced…

Jonny LeRoy: Yup – for me when I started using tiddlywiki the main thing missing was any kind of classification. I’ve had a fair amount of experience with pretty complicated taxonomies and ontologies – particularly for managing / aggregating / syndicating content on a travel start-up I was involved in. but the simplicity of sites like delicious and flickr started to make me realise that some simple keyword tags gets you nearly everything you need. and also removes half of the issues related to category hierarchies and maintenance. particularly when your dataset isn’t massive. even when the dataset and tag list grows there are ways of “discovering” structure rather than imposing it … see flickr’s new tag clusters for a good example of this. In the good open source fashion I had a quick hack at the TW code and put some basic tagging functionality in place. A few other people were creating tag implementations at the same time, but they were more based around using tiddlers as tags ….. I was fairly keen just to keep the tags as metadata. I’m still yet to see a good online wiki that has tagging built in. for me that’s been an issue with most wikis I’ve used

Loose Wire: i get the impression that tagging is still considered a social thing, rather than tagging for oneself, as a way to commit to hierarchies, a la outliners etc?
Jonny LeRoy: that’s one of the beauties of it – though not so much in TW. the free-association you get by browsing other people’s tags is amazing. comparing what you can find through something like delicious compared to open directory projects – dmoz etc is quite interesting
Loose Wire: it is great, but i feel there’s huge potential in using tags for oneself, too?
Jonny LeRoy: yup – when you’re using them for yourself you can set your own little rules that get round some of the hierarchy problems. overloaded tags – with more than one meaning can get confusing in a social context, but personally it’s much easier to manage how you refer to things. also the ability to add tags together – so you can search on multiple tags creates an ad hoc structure.
Loose Wire: yes. i’d love to see TWs let you choose a selection of tags and then display the matches… oops, think we’re talking the same thing there…
Jonny LeRoy: yeah – I’d been meaning to put that in place, but haven’t had a moment 🙂
Loose Wire: is that going to happen? all the various TWs are now under one roof, is that right?
Jonny LeRoy: Yeah – Jeremy Ruston – who started it all off seems to be managing things reasonably well. and pulling together different versions. there was a bit of a branch with the GTDWiki which got a lot of publicity.
Loose Wire: is that a good way to go, do you think?
Jonny LeRoy: it’s a weird one, because it’s not like a traditional open source project with code checked into CVS. so versioning can be quite hard. but it’s also one of the beauties of it – anyone with a browser and a text editor can have a go.

Loose Wire: i noticed the file sizes get quite big quite quickly?
Jonny LeRoy: a lot of that is the javascript – if you’re just using it locally then you can extract that out into another file. that makes saving and reloading a bit quicker. the file will grow though with the amount of data you put in.
Loose Wire: is that tricky to do?
Jonny LeRoy: no – you just need to cut all the javascript – put it into a new file and put in an HTML tag referencing it
Loose Wire: how much stuff could one store without it getting unwieldy?
Jonny LeRoy: That really depends on your PC / browser combo – how quickly it can parse stuff.  if you were going to want to store really large amounts of data then you might want to look at ways of having “modules” that load separately.

Loose Wire: is it relatively easy to turn a TW into a website/page?
Jonny LeRoy: yeah – couldn’t be simpler – upload the file to a webserver … and er … that’s it. it does rely on people having javascript enabled – but 99% do. one issue is that since all the internal links are javascript search engines like google won’t follow them. but google will read the whole text of the page if it indexes you

Loose Wire: where do you think this TW thing could go? do you see a future for it? or is it going to be overtaken by something else?
Jonny LeRoy: Definitely – the company I’m working at right now (ThoughtWorks) have used it for a major UK company . they used it for a simple handbook for new people
Loose Wire: oh really? excellent!
Jonny LeRoy: really simple to use and quick to navigate – it got pretty good feedback. I see more people being likely to use it personally on their own pcs though. I use it to keep track of things I’ve got to do or have done. the dated history bit is really useful to work out what was going on a couple of weeks ago.
Loose Wire: the timeline thing?
Jonny LeRoy: yup
Jonny LeRoy: I can also see new TW like products coming out for managing tasks better – an equivalent of tadalist on the client side. beyond that it’s a good thought experiment in how datadriven sites can work. the server can push the data in some structured format to the browser and then the browser uses TW like technology to work out how to render it.
Loose Wire: yes. … [however] i feel a lot of people like to keep their stuff on their own pc (or other device, USB drive, whatever). not all of us are always online….
Jonny LeRoy: exactly – the wiki-on-a-stick idea is great. you can stick firefox and your wiki on the usb key and off you go
Loose Wire: yes, very cool…
Jonny LeRoy: The next step is then to have the option to do some background syncing to a server when you end up online
Loose Wire: do you think more complex formatting, layout and other tasks could be done? and could these things be synced with portable devices?
Jonny LeRoy: the portable devices question is interesting – it really depends on how much javascript they’ve got on their browsers. there’s no reason why it’s not possible, but there are more vagaries of how the functionality is handled
Loose Wire: javascript is the key to all this, i guess….
Jonny LeRoy: it’s a bit like the web in the mid 90s where you didn’t have a clue what people’s browsers would support. it’s actually having a bit of a comeback. many people just see it as a little glue language to stick things together or move things around ….. but it’s actually really powerful – I discovered more of it’s dynamic possibilities while playing with TW. the best thing about it for me is that anyone who’s got a modern browser can run javascript – there’s no extra install.

Loose Wire: yes, making the browser an editor is a wonderful thing… what sort of things do you think we might see with it?
Jonny LeRoy: I’m not sure what new thing we’ll see, but we’ll definitely see the things we use the browser for already getting much better and smoother. the user interaction is starting to become more like working on a locally installed application.

Thanks, Jonny.

Column: backing up

 Loose Wire — Just To Be on The Safe Side

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 30 May 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how to back up your files in the case of disaster, theft, stupidity or a combination of all three. But as several readers pointed out, nearly all the methods I suggested have flaws: Backing up to another drive is no good if you don’t take the drive with you — assuming your computer is eaten by Godzilla or your mother sells it in a garage sale while you’re at the mall — or if the drive remains connected and gets eaten by the same virus that destroyed your original data.

 
On-line drives, where you upload all your documents to a Web site, are fine but a bit slow, and you can never be 100% certain the on-line-drive company won’t go bust, or that someone won’t hack into your data and learn all your darkest secrets. Backing up to a CD-ROM is cheap, but they have a habit of corrupting data without telling you.
 
When my laptop was stolen a year ago, I was fairly sure I hadn’t lost much data until I found my back-up to CD-ROM was a melange of zeroes and ones. Not my idea of a safe back-up.
 
My answer to all these gripes is: All true, but maybe we’re addressing the wrong problem. Unless you’re a real data dude, chances are your most important data — ignoring all those thousands of company letters, ageing CVs, letters to old flames and what-have-you that are clogging your hard drive — could be limited to about 100 megabytes. (Doesn’t sound like much? Remember that 10 years ago that was a big hard drive for most people.)
 
What I suggest is this: Work out what your most important documents are and save them to one easy-to-remember folder. Weed it out ruthlessly. Don’t worry about contacts and calendars and stuff like that if you have a Palm or Pocket PC, since they’re already duplicated on PC and hand-held devices (and if they aren’t, you should be ashamed of it, at your age). If all this weeded data comes to more than 100 megabytes, you can always compress it into a zip file, which works particularly well with bloated document formats like Microsoft Word. For this try WinZip from www.winzip.com, or the more complete PowerDesk from Ontrack International at www.ontrack.com that I mentioned a few weeks ago.
 
Now for the neat bit. A couple of years ago a Singaporean company called Trek 2000 International (www.thumbdrive.com) started selling mini-drives about the size of your little finger, which they called ThumbDrives (don’t ask; probably they all have small thumbs down there at Loyang Industrial Estate). These sleek little gadgets look like a small lighter and slot into your USB port. After installing some software, depending on what kind of operating system you’re using, you have a new drive.
 
When they first appeared they were pricey but now with competition from elsewhere they’re pretty reasonable: I picked up a 128-megabyte M-Drive from Taiwan’s Star King Technologies for about $80. And Britain’s Targus does a more expensive 64-megabyte model, which retails for $120 and looks more like a magic marker.
 
All models, however, are well designed and fit easily onto a key ring. Which is exactly where I suggest you put it once you’ve backed up all your important data. Now you have a copy of all your most important stuff with you at all times — as long as you don’t lose your keys or get amnesia.
 
There are other options: If you have a gadget that hooks up to your PC, such as a camera, MP3 player, Pocket PC or Palm, chances are you can store data on the flash card that comes with it. Hook the gadget up to your PC and you should be able to read the contents of the flash card as a separate drive. In most cases you can now put anything you like on it.
 
In the future this will be how most of us store all our stuff: M-Drive promise a 2-gigabyte version in the near future, and while it may not be that cheap, knowing that a back-up of everything you hold dear is locked into a little finger in your pocket may be worth the expense.