The View from the Cluetrain

9 searching for intellectual stimulation, the Dowbrigade wandered into Austin Hall at the Harvard Law School for a ten-year semi-reunion of the blogging bad boys who brought us “The Cluetrain Manifesto“, a cry for significance by a thin slice of the Web’s original demographic, aging white guys. A demographic in which, in the name of full disclosure, the Dowbrigade also remains proudly ensconced.

Of the four original cluesters, Chris Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger and Rick Levine, two were in attendance (Searls and Weinberger) at this Berkman Center event, the purpose of which was to evaluate where we are today, ten years after the book came out and thirty years into the digital revolution, with respect to the 95 theses (the Dowbrigade confesses to hearing asperated “F”s whenever these were mentioned – gotta check the old rearing aid) which the quartet nailed to the virtual cathedral door back in 1999. Jonathan Zittrain kept thing moving along in a spritely fahion.

The question we have today is the same as the question we had when we first read “The Cluetrain Manifesto” nine years ago. It is: “Is there anything inherant in the digital revolution which will lead to change which liberates, empowers and increases transparency?”

The four Cluetrain authors conclude, with some misgivings, that there is.  The contrary view holds that the internet is a supremely powerful tool which, like most other tools, is neutral in its essential nature until imbued with purpose by a human being, and that digital technologies can just as easily be used to control, manipulate and obscure as to enlighten. Lets get a little context on the question.

The distinguishing characteristic of our species is its unique use of tools.  Sure, some marsupials use sticks to pick up ants, but that’s a far cry from the Hubble Telescope. Over the ages, the development of human culture has been primed by a series of technological changes involving tools, some of which were revolutionary and some of which were transformative. See the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the invention of paper, the invention of gunpowder, the Industrial Revolution.

We agree with David Weinberger that the digital revolution is going to be the most transformative change since Gutenberg introduced the printing press to Western writers. Yet we believe that both the nature and the particulars of the transformation will not come into focus for years, decades, or even centuries.  Will it be liberating, empowering and anti-heirarchical, or co-opted and big-brothered into a digital feed directly into the frontal lobes of a passive populace? As far as the Dowbrigade is concerned, the jury is still out.

The audience in Austin Hall was at least as august as the presenters. We are going to try to limit our name dropping to a single paragraph, so if you find this sort of thing offensive feel free to skip to the next paragraph (BUT NO FURTHER). California Dan Gilmore sat next to Dan Bricklin, inventor of visicalc (how sick he must be of that apelation, but how can one leave it out in a forum like this), who ran around with a microphone like an assistant grip, SJ of One-Laptop-per-Child fame, the ever-alluring Halley Suitt instigated the musical microphone drill, and Amanda Wattlington, were there, among many others.

They, and the webcast audience weighing in via Twitter, were interested in how the Cluetrain doctrine had or had not impacted the political sphere, and the presenters made some spot on comments about the diaspora of digital talent following the implosion of the Dean campaign and how it affected pretty much everybody on the Democratic side of the race.  However, there was much breast-beating and dispair over how the digital dreams seem to have dissapated over the Obama gang as they transmutated from campaign to administration.

Well, duh. Score one for the tool side. Some human beings are master tool-users.  They will use whatever tools are available to achieve their aims. If new tools are invented, they will learn to use them.  If they cannot, they will use other people as tools, to manipulate the new tools. This is a law of human nature.

Let us not forget that human nature has not changed for at least 15,000 years, which is about as far back as we have a detailed idea of how people lived and acted, and we cannot expected it to change within our lifetimes. The printing press may have transformed human culture and history, but read Livy or Plutarch or Lao Tzu and you can see that politics, statesmanship and warfare have stayed true to form since way before Gutenberg. In light of this it seems futile to hope that the internet will fundamentally transform American politics, at least in the near future.

The other lesson we take from this is that the most profound effects of transformative technological change take a long time to develop. When printing presses first appeared in Europe, they were used largely by the Church, to print Bibles and prayer books and maintain its monopoly in erudition. It was 200 years before newspapers achieved widespread currency.

The emergence of a global information network is certainly the most profound event of our lifetimes, in terms of its effects on human society.  Yet it seems naiive and unrealistic to assume that the changes it engenders will be positive or iconoclastic or subversive. It may just be that the inventors and innovators and early adopters of new tools are positive and iconoclastic and subversive.  Once the value of a new tool is demonstrated, it may fall to the most powerful, or the highest bidder, to determine its evenual use.

Which is not necessarily an evil thing. Those eventual uses, like the motivaiton of the users, will be determinded by human nature, which, in the final analysis, is an uneasy amalgam of good and evil.  Which means that the work we do, and the decisions we make, can have an effect on the case at hand, can offer mute testimony to the positive potential of the digital revolution. The jury is still out, and the case is still open. Testify.

Last Word on the Millionth Word


On Wednesday, a Texas-based media consulting firm announced the birth of the millionth English word, which arrived on June 10, 2009, at 10:22 a.m., Stratford-on-Avon time.

The lucky lexeme? “Web 2.0,” which edged out “slumdog,” “octomom” and “N00b,” a disparaging term for video game newbies.

Language experts, when asked for comment, found themselves reaching for other words, some of them unprintable.

“It’s bushwa, fraud, hokum,” said Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley.

Grant Barrett, a lexicographer and co-founder of the online dictionary, said: “It’s a sham. It’s a hoax. It’s fake. It’s not real.”

Indeed, it’s hard to find scholars who react with anything less than blunt outrage at the headline-garnering “Million-Word March,” which was begun in 2003 by Paul JJ Payack, the president and chief word analyst of Global Language Monitor. They point to the frequently revised predictions of the fateful word’s arrival, perhaps to coincide with the publication of his book about the project. They question the validity of the algorithm used to pinpoint when a word crossed the threshold of 25,000 geographically scattered uses — something they say even Google could not come up with.

Mr. Payack defended himself, conceding that the announcement of the millionth word was just an “estimate.” But he insisted it was still significant.

“English has an amazing ability to accept new words, generated from every corner of the world, and that’s a fascinating concept that should be acknowledged,” he said.

True enough, say linguists, who with all the computer firepower they use these days are hardly word mavens trying to keep techie barbarians out of the sacred precincts of Dr. Johnson. The question of how to count words — and just why English-speakers love to hear about their unusually weird and variegated lexicon — opens up fundamental issues about just what English, and a word, is.

English is definitely big. The Oxford English Dictionary lists about 600,000 words (mostly drawn from written sources), with more than 1,000 added annually. Merriam-Webster’s estimates that there are about a million words in English, give or take a quarter-million — far more than the 500,000-plus claimed by the runner-up, Mandarin Chinese, and the 100,000-odd words of French.

But the idea of an “English word” is inherently fuzzy. How do you count compound words like “hot dog” or infinitely expandable ones like “great-great-great-great-aunt?” What about foreign loan words? Terms for chemical compounds (roughly 84 million) or insect species (roughly one million)? The slang terms that wink in and out of existence without ever making it into print?

Our fascination with the vastness of English, Mr. Nunberg said, springs from a kind of linguistic imperialism — a feeling that “our dictionaries are bigger than their dictionaries.” But this doesn’t really make us any richer linguistically, he contended.

“It’s not like the French are impoverished because they have fewer fish names than we do,” he said.

Indeed, some linguists argue that our obsession with the odd profusion of English misses what is really distinctive about the language: its grammar.

Lots of languages have a mixed-up lexicon, but few have English’s hybrid structure, said John McWhorter, a linguist at the Manhattan Institute. English grammar “has been bastardized by Celtic and then beaten up by Vikings, who made it simpler than it would otherwise be,” he said. “We are speaking a bastard and beaten tongue with a very unusual grammatical history.”

But try getting anyone interested in a story about that.

from the New York Times

Actually, the Dowbrigade is fascinated by the history of the English Language, having taught it at the Peruvian National University. It is worth remembering that before the aforementioned linguistic assault and battery, English was a hard-luck refugee dialect of low German surrounded and mutated by Celtic and Latin, and that afterward it was raped and pillaged by French, which kept it in idiomatic surfdom for 400 years.

A Pitcher’s Worth a Million Words


shakespeare-seriously-noob.jpgAustin, Texas June 10, 2009 – The Global Language Monitor today announced that Web 2.0 has bested Jai Ho, N00b and Slumdog as the 1,000,000th English word or phrase. added to the codex of fourteen hundred-year-old language. Web 2.0 is a technical term meaning the next generation of World Wide Web products and services. It has crossed from technical jargon into far wider circulation in the last six months

from The Language Monitor

Technically, is “Web 2.0” a word? Isn’t it a phrase or a version? The reason that English has more words than any other language (at least according to English-speaking linguists), is that a) it historically and compulsively steals the best words from all of the other languages it comes into contact with, like schadenfreude and tutti frutti, and b) because it makes it so gosh darned easy to make up new words out of thin air! The English, pedantic though they may be, and unlike the French and Spanish, have no Royal Academy of English to decree what is or is not an “official” word. It is a Darwinian jungle of a language, where words subject themselves to a merciless usage-based survival of the fittest. But in the final analysis, any fool can invent a new English word.

The Dowbrigade attempted to fill a void in Shakespeare’s voluminous lexicon when, at the tender age of 16, he coined the term “spastik” /spaz-tÉEk/, to describe the desire to get high, reasoning analagously that if you want drink you are thirsty, if you want food you are hungry, but if you want to get high, you are spastik.

It is uncertain if the term spastik ever reached beyond our little gang of juvenile delinquents in Upstate New York. We think we may have heard it in a rap song back in the 80’s, and once in a smokey reggae bar in Cambridgeport, but it was never clear enough to be sure. Perhaps The Global Language Monitor will never feature it on their web site, but it certainly seems more wordly than “Web 2.0”.

Going Down With the Ship


A Frog in our Throat


A FROG that constantly changes colour is being worshipped as a GOD in India.
Hundreds of curious followers flock to Reji Kumar’s home every day to pray and ask for miracles.

Now one of the country’s top zoologists plans to study the rainbow frog. But Reji, 35, who keeps the creature in a glass bottle after finding it while out watering plants, is afraid it might CROAK first.

He said: “My one problem is that this frog does not appear to eat. I keep trying to feed it but it doesn’t eat anything. I don’t know what else to give it.”

The frog was a dazzling WHITE colour when Reji, from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, first spotted it.

Then it changed to YELLOW and had gone GREY by the time he got it home.

Lift worker Reji added: “By night the frog was dark yellow, and then it became transparent so you could see its internal organs.

“It seemed like a miracle to me that this frog had so many different coats. So now people come to see him and pray to him.”

Professor Oommen V. Oommen from India’s Kerala University, said it was not uncommon for animals to change colour.

He explained: “Frogs do change colour to scare away predators.

“But from what I have heard, the frog at Kumar’s place changes colour so frequently it is a bit unusual. I will collect it for study.”

From the Sun (London) June 8, 2009

Boy, that Professor Oommen V. Oommen sounds like quite the card, or a Melvillian divorce proceeding. We hope he never finds the Dowbrigade “a bit unusual”. On the topic of worshiping frogs, we seem to remember spending time among a tribe in the Upper Rio Napo region of the Ecuadorian Amazon that did just that, although their frogs only changed color after being licked…..

Recession Recipies


Cooking Racoon

Rib of Rocky Raccoon

To many the raccoon is the “cutest” of the backyard
critters.  But to anyone who’s received a rabies shot after
being bitten by one, or to anyone who’s woken up to discover a
week’s worth or trash, dirty diapers and all, strewn about the
driveway, a little smile will spread across your face when the little
masked trash-burglar hits the grill.  Gideon’s Bible
can’t save the little @$$hole now.  See the squirrel section
on how to skin and clean the raccoon, again being very careful to
remove the musk glands without damaging them.  Feel free to wear
the skin as a hat while cooking the meat.

Cut the meat into serving pieces.  Place in a large pan with:

1 cup red wine
2 onions, sliced
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
3 cloves garlic, sliced

Add water and bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 1
hour.  Now the meat is tender and delicious, ready to be painted
with your favorite bbq sauce and tossed on the fire.  Who’s
laughing now you garbage-eating $%&! disturber?

from “Highest Five” Men’s magazine

These days, it’s hard to tell if articles like this are serious. We remember reading one Popular Mechanics -type story about how to make an in-engine cooking chamber which uses the “natural” heat generated by your vehicle’s motor to cook the roadkill you have conscientiously stopped to scrape off the asphalt and onto your dinner table while you drive…..

Dead Invade the White House


First Family
The surviving (and formerly feuding) members of the Grateful Dead had a secret impromptu meeting Monday evening with the man they credit with reuniting them: President Obama. The president welcomed all the members of The Dead, who are performing tonight at the Verizon Center in Washington, to the Oval Office just before dinner last night.

from the Washington Post

A transparent ploy to mesmerize baby boomers while social security evaporates and end-of-life care is made more cost effective.

Dowbrigade Does Denver


Day 1 of the TESOL Conference in Denver, March 26th 2009, and we are snowed in at a cheap motel in Boulder.  Our brilliant idea – stay in scenic hippyish Boulder, a short 20 miles from the Denver Convention Center, nestled under the stunning profile of the Rockies, in the foothills, so much more pleasant than hobnobbing with 8,000 English teachers in the downtown Denver mega malls and swanky convention hotels. When we wanted to meet the occasional fondly remembered ex-colleague or attend the odd session, we would just jump into our rented Dodge Sentinel and take beautiful 20-minute drive into  town. And living in the midst of this huge convention, we would have had to closely monitor every word that came out of our mouth, on a number of levels.


Right now, sitting on the couch in our $50 suite (free upgrade since the WIFI was not working in the originally booked room – a guest stole the wireless repeater in that wing – and we threatened a bad review on, with 16 inches of snow on the ground, temps in the teens and a driving wind off the mountains, the turnpike to Denver just recently reopened after closing down due to multiple spinouts and pileups, thinking of my colleagues snugly ensconsed in a fine quality restaurant sharing scincillating conversation and delicious gourmet food, it still seems like a good idea.

Nevertheless, we now have no one to talk to except the always enganging Norma Yvonne. As we pointed out to her this morning as we watched the blizzard reports roll in, we can’t think of a single person we’d rather be snowed in with.

Hopefully, tomorrow we will be able to get into town and deliver this magnus opus.  Stay tuned….

Our Presentation WIKI

Multidimensional Preposition


WHAAAAAT? Bailed Out Bank Of America Paying Consumers To See Hollywood Film

This is unbelievable. Though I suppose it was just a matter of time before the Hollywood moguls figured out a way to get their hands on some of that U.S. government bailout money, albeit indirectly. But why in the world are American taxpayers helping foot the bill to promote a big-budget 3-D DreamWorks Animation movie? Well, it appears the reason is because the president of the Jeffrey Katzenberg-led Hollywood animation studio just happens to be Bank of America’s former Vice Chairman and CFO.

Bank of America was helping families to see Monsters vs Aliens in 3-D rather than 2-D at no additional cost when it starts playing in theaters on Friday, March 27th. (The promotion is here.)

from Deadline Hollywood

What a difference a preposition can make! We read that headline (Bank of America Paying Consumers to See Hollywood Film) and decided we could see the film 20 or 30 times, depending on how much they were paying. Times are tough.

Imagine our chagrin when we realized they were just paying FOR consumers to see the movie, not actually paying them money. Ah, well, its still a nice way to try out the latest in 3D technology for the still usurous 2D prices.

Although the web site says its for BofA clients, all you need to get the upgrade is an email address.

NYTimes reports 33-year orgasm!


An interesting article appeared in yesterday’s New York Times on life at the San Francisco sex commune One Taste Urban Retreat Center. Even the venerable Grey Lady is showing a little cleavege in these dark days for print journalism…

MS. DAEDONE’S inspiration and mentor as a sex guru was Ray Vetterlein, who achieved fame of sorts in sex circles by claiming to lengthen the average female orgasm to 20 minutes.

Mr. Vetterlein, now in his 80s, was inspired by Lafayette Morehouse, a controversial 40-year-old community still in existence in suburban Lafayette, Calif., that has been conducting public demonstrations of a woman in orgasm since 1976.

We know that woman! In fact, if she is indeed who we think she is, we were largely responsible for that original orgasm back in ’76. Us, a bottle of Roher 714s, Merck flake and a pair of snakeskin boots…..

Oh, Christmas Tree


In the first such ruling in the federal judiciary in M, a judge in Boston agreed yesterday to allow video cameras in the courtroom to provide live Internet coverage of a high-interest lawsuit against a Boston University graduate student accused of downloading music illegally.

US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner said she will allow Courtroom View Network – a New York-based company that webcasts trials, primarily in state courts – to chronicle a key hearing Jan. 22 in the suit against the student, Joel Tenenbaum, by a group that represents the US recording industry.

from the Boston Globe

Hitting a little close to home. We actually heard about this case when we were at the courthouse on Tuesday.  We were in an Appelate Division courtroom with a group of Asian college students getting a tour of the joint. They were so disinterested that several fell sound asleep during the demonstration and explanation, including the kid sitting in the Judge’s bench! We were mortified.

This case obviously deserves careful attention. According to our docent Tuesday, the RIAA objected to the judge’s decision to allow a netcast of the proceedings, and both sides are preparing to argue the issue. Should the netcasting proceed, we will endeavor to give readers a head’s up.

Santa Norma Blesses Us All


Norma Moreira with a calabash Nativity scene, from her native Ecuador, among the dozens of creches she has collected from around the world.

This Christmas, Norma Moreira and her husband are sharing their home with 45 wise men.

Moreira, who immigrated to the United States from Ecuador in 1996, has been acquiring Nativity scenes for the past two decades. With her collection now standing at 58 (15 of which contain the three wise men), images of a cluttered storefront might come to mind. But when you consider that some figures are not much larger than a fingernail, it’s easy to understand how Moreira is able to comfortably share her Watertown home with all those creches.

from the Boston Globe, Christmas Day 2008

Merry Christmas, everyone! We couldn’t be prouder of our lovely and loving wife who today was profiled in a feature in the Boston Globe.  This story began as a blog posting on Dowbrigade News two years ago. A few weeks ago, Norma suggested I submit it to the Globe. Her collection has grown in the past two years, and they jumped on it like dogs on a meat wagon.

Let the record show that the Dowbrigade considers himself the luckiest man in the world for having found the perfect wife for his problematic personality.