Secret Lithuanian Energy Source

Actually, I may be the last person to learn about Andrius Kalikauskas and MS Labs. Andrius is a passionate guy with undergraduate degrees in math and physics and a physics PhD. Andrius was introduced to Xpertweb by Mitch and Flemming as a person who is interested in reputation systems. Since they are Xpertweb’s secret weapons, their recommendation ensured that he would be involved.

Andrius’ larger concern is thinking itself. Most people don’t realize that thinking is a tool so they don’t treat it with the objectivity they might use when shopping for a computer or Sawzall. The tag line of MS Labs is “Do you care about thinking?”

Flemming riffs on thinking:

Thinking is one subject I’m really interested in. Our ability to think abstractly is one of the key traits that define what a human is. Yet we seem to have little clue how we do it, or how we might do it better. Our future depends, of course, on what choices we arrive at, individually and collectively. And yet, most of us don’t have any better strategy than picking the strongest thought that appears in our head, or our stomach, or wherever it appears, and assuming that this is our answer. Without examining where it came from, and without having the faintest clue as to HOW to think.

The presence of that quote in this post is an example of Andrius’ work. He organizes and juxtaposes important points of view among his MS Labs members. I’d seen the quote before, but might not have found it again without seeing it in the MS Labs members’ feed. Logically enough, the MS discussion group is called “Thinking Relevantly.”

Relevance is the first service Andrius is performing for Xpertweb. Another is to help organize willing hearts and minds to help with the coding and rollout. Andrius is pressing Flemming (actually, himself and Flemming…;-) to have working code on May 23, for demonstration at the BlogTalk conference in Vienna. That’s what Andrius does, he catalyzes innovation.

Andrius and Flemming are both driven to take the broadest view possible when starting a project, questioning every assumption and bias. Combined with Mitch’s dogma-killing crusade, Xpertweb is reasonably protected from blowing smoke up its own ass. All three of them know that the most dangerous force in developing a new protocol is one’s own assumptions and biases.

Half a Loaf

Here’s an example of how Andrius is questioning our assumptions:

[A list of] references – kind words, frustrations, evaluations.

http://www.ms.lt/en/work/references.html

My wish is to see what initiatives are out there, help them find
synergy, and build a “web of references” so that people are better able to hook up their efforts. Right now I’m just spitting the pages out of a little database on my laptop. I appreciate more data! Flatter yourself! or somebody you care for! It should be something that’s posted on the web.

A key feature of this system is that the data is excerpted from the web, that is, it is data “in context” so you can see why those kind words were spoken, or learn more about the initiative. It’s the power of overhearing people speaking. It also lets people farm the information that helps them present themselves, which seems only fair and helpful.

Partly I’m doing this for my work on http://xpertweb.com because I’m trying to show the importance of practicing with a real live system and seeing what kind of uses trigger self-sustaining participation. Already> it’s helped me understand the data breakdown between initiatives and references, and the various kinds of each. So that will be important in defining data elements.

Partly I’m doing it because I need to sell our lab’s team building services and I realized that these words seem very convincing, as at the bottom of http://www.ms.lt/team/ Even the frustrations seem informative.

Partly I’m doing it because I think its been long needed in order to get anything done. I’d like to use a web of references to back up Tom Munnecke’s work on “uplift pattern languages” specifically applied to helping HIV/AIDS orphans in Africa. http://www.upspace.org

I appreciate all kinds of feedback, and also data, and especially ideas on how this might be put to practical use. At some point, too, it would be nice to put the database itself online.

When you go to the references link, you see entries like this:

Minciu Sodas

kindword… Benjamin, Leon on 4/2/2003 about Minciu Sodas: This is excellent material – I’ve been lurking here for some time and reading with fascination. In the coming weeks I’ll be sharing a new concept with the group called iWork based on Dee Hock’s (Visa) chaordic model – watch this space.

kindword… Bruk, Ian on 4/2/2003 about Minciu Sodas: I guess the one thing I didn’t mention is that Minciu Sodas, through Andrius mostly I think, has my trust. That is a big thing in my mind. It’s just how to develop that?

kindword… Pillai, Bala on 3/28/2003 about Minciu Sodas: How about us considering having our mindcosms working as a union? — a tighter minds parallel of the European Union? Assess what Minciu Sodas’ comparative advantage in strengths and resources are , ditto for APIC Mind Colonies and conjoin the two better? Us rowing in the same direction but focusing on difference inter-connectible aspects — like a ship going in the same direction but key minds within the ship are taking charge of different functions.

You’ll find 14 sets of these kindwords on the page, demonstrating why Andrius is so valuable. I picked a series of three at random, and discovered something about non-explicit reputation systems when I rea
lly examined those three sets of kind words. Notice that the last one is a suggestion classified as a kindword. Although it’s the only such case among the 14, it points to the problems inherent in a non-explicit system.

Like blogs, kindword/frustration/evaluation comments can be helpful but they share a failing we’ve discovered about blogs, which is why people are trying to leverage them into knowledge management systems: non-explicit, anecdotal text is quotable but otherwise unusable. Here’s a report just in from Jason Calacanis on how his company’s venture capital database overtook the previous market leader, which was a blog about venture capital:

That is the big lesson I think.. blog + database + research reports = big business, blog plus nothing = a hobby. (author’s emphasis)

Reputation is too important to be a hobby.

If I’m looking for a Java programmer for a particular solution, and I need it by Tuesday, how do I use the accumulated kindword entries to find the perfect programmer? I want the kind words, of course, but I need quantitative ratings and average rating reports and numerical comparisons that act as pointers to help me get to the these little blocks of text. All of that info might be available elsewhere, but surely it will be captured on the site of the person with the reputation, (or in an RSS feed) so, that I can click on a link to an order form as soon as I’m satisfied that I’ve found what I need. The Xpertweb approach is to require the buyer to provide the kind (or not) words and a number grade (01-99%). Then we can look at all the Java programmers who have sold n or more tasks involving, for example, graphic representation of numerical data.

The operative word is require. A reputation system is worthless if it captures ratings only at the whim of the buyer, or worse, at the whim of participants in a forum, as in this example, where the comments do not necessarily relate to a particular task. They can be too vague to benefit the next customer. Therefore it’s imperative to require that a grade and comment be recorded within a specified period after presentation of a completion report or invoice.

Pulling the String . . .

Have you ever had one of those projects which seemed simple, but once you got into it, you discover non intuitive requirements embedded in your initial enthusiasm? Such a discovery is like pulling a string out of a sweater. Actualizing the Xpertweb meme is a little like that.

Here’s what happens when you think seriously about a useful reputation system:

  1. The central form, a Completion Report or Invoice. (form 1)
  2. In order to capture a grade and comment, there must be a contract in place to require the rating, presumably in an order form. (form 2)
  3. The order form is really 2 forms, the order plus a buyer authorization to proceed. (form 3)
  4. There’s often give-and-take between the buyer and seller to arrange scheduling, delivery details, etc. The parties can do it over the phone or email, but since we’re building forms anyway, why not provide a little subroutine for negotiating the details? (forms 3a & 3b)
  5. There’s nothing explicitly required between buyer acceptance and the Completion Report or Invoice. It’s useful to provide a Remarks Form, initiated by either party. (form 4)

Fair enough, those forms could be designed in an afternoon. But there are other considerations. Once completed, where should their data be stored? Today, such information is kept by the seller. Naturally, the seller will yield to the temptation to excise the unflattering remarks. The data could be kept on a central server, but then what happens to reputations built through blood, sweat and tears if the central servers go out of business? It’s not like the W3C is gonna store this info for us. Just as bad, any centralized system may not scale as needed or worse, is corruptible, as described in the HumanTech Parable.

The only answer left standing is that both the buyer and the seller must keep the information, which must be identical to be valid. That means that both parties must have a web site with space and programming for the reputation system. Ratings so mirrored are demonstrably valid. If there’s any divergence, the ratings cannot be presumed to be valid.

The ratings are only useful if subsequent users can access the reputation data. Conventional wisdom says the data should be a mySQL data base with a CGI. Then, of course, each user would need an XML-RPC or SOAP routine to access reputation data from all the other sites. That’s a load which is sure to overload the requirement for user-maintained data. (Visionary doesn’t have to mean stupid–there are some experts who think Xpertweb is silly enough already!) The obvious but counter-intuitive answer is to post all data as pure XML in plain sight on each user’s Xpertweb site with known paths to the data.

And it doesn’t stop there. Our little Xpertweb engine (the little engine that might) needs to help its users describe specific products, like a customized PHP-MySQL shopping cart or mowing a 20,000 sq. ft. lawn. Once described, that product data must be accessible as a product page, and the product itself must have a reputation built around it. When someone needs their drain fixed, they’re not really looking for a plumber, they’re looking for a fixed drain.

That’s almost the end of our little string, so I’ll spare you the rest.

Freeing the Horse

As Doc reported on Thursday, these requirements seem implicit if you’re serious about a useful reputation system, sort of like seeing the horse in a block of marble and removing all the marble that doesn’t look like a horse. In fact, as Doc also related, a useful reputation system seems to me to be implicit in the XML spec. Though enterprises seem to be using XML primarily as a serialization routine (like SOAP) to connect legacy data systems, XML is fine as a data format, if you’re willing to live with its verbosity.

As a data format hosted on a web server, XML is readable by search engines, a skillion parsers and certainly by a thin-client purpose-built script like the one we’re building for Xpertweb. We’re even on the cusp of a promise dormant since the spec became a recommendation in February, 1998: An XHTML page can contain explicit links to bits of XML data and, without any programming display linked data when the page is opened. XML is truly data for the rest of us, because it frees us from CGI programming and the hidden data that only CGIs can talk to.

Internal Combustion

All those moving parts seem obvious and necessary if you’re serious about a useful reputation system. If there are any shortcuts, we’d love to hear about them. We have recurrent internal debate on whether all these moving parts are necessary, typically when a new teammate signs on, as in Andrius’ case.

I see a reputation engine as a kind of internal combustion engine. Even if it’s a two-banger, you still need quite a few moving parts to get it to turn over. I think we have a pretty good design and built-in means to re-engineer it while it’s running. That’s why I welcome dogma slayers,
but note that there’s more to a reputation engine than it seems at first.

10:21:44 PM    

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