Making It Happen

A while ago, I had an idea for a cool website. It involved grouping blog posts under “debate” questions. There was a simple mechanism for auto-detection if you linked a blog post to a debate page. The point was to be able to group postings with more semantic richness than simple tags or categories.

It fell by the wayside, so I took it down after a few months. Recently I’ve been seeing sites pop up based on similar ideas. AllVoices is one, and is another. It’s nice to see the idea of information richness continuing to develop in interesting ways.

And it makes me wish I had stuck with my site idea, though to be honest, it wasn’t realistically feasible. The hardest part wasn’t coding the functionality, which only took 2-3 weeks of the large pool of free time I had back then. (Side goals were to get a working knowledge of CherryPy and sqlalchemy, so at least those were accomplished!) No, the real difficulty was “selling” it to users: publicizing the site, making it visually attractive and user-friendly, and getting people to use it in their own blogs. I didn’t have the skills or resources to make those things happen.

There’s an adage that says success on the web largely depends upon execution, not the concept. That’s so true. I feel like I’ve known so many smart, talented technology people who excel at what they do but haven’t been able to pull off their interesting side projects. I think it’s because we often underestimate the non-technical challenges in getting a website off the ground. In many ways, those are more important to do well than solving the technological problems.

Don’t mention you-know-who!

The past 2 days, the fundraising campaign of a certain Texas Congressman has made it big in the news.

I was amused to see that digg allegedly blocked stories relating to the event. For a brief while, anyhow. My debatewire item made it through, and has been drawing a bit of traffic today.

I’m always intrigued when technical stuff gets caught up in social issues. Should the stories be considered spam? Are they the efforts of online supporters and zealots? Does it make a difference if they’re submitted by supporters or his paid campaign staff? And does it matter that they’re getting voted up and people seem interested in reading them?

It makes my head spin. Only in our nutty, postmodern culture.

Is “race” a valid scientific construct?

James Watson, of Watson and Crick fame, has resigned this morning (Race row DNA scientist quits lab). No doubt it was due to the controversy over his incredibly offensive comments about people of African descent:

He was quoted as saying he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”.

He later issued a pretty feeble apology; actually more of a statement that he’d been misunderstood. On the subject of whether Africans were genetically inferior, he retracted his earlier statement: “there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

The most interesting discussions so far about this incident resolve around the question: Is “race” a valid scientific construct for genetic research, or is it merely a social construct? It’s a deceptive question whose answer probably isn’t either/or: for example, I think it’s been shown that certain populations correlated with “race” are more genetically prone to having particular medical conditions.

I’m a skeptic when it comes to science. For me, the deeper question is: when does race get used in research and when doesn’t it? For what purposes? Science rarely takes place (if ever) in a vacuum of objectivity. Research gets funded, often in order to support human decisions about something. Note that Watson’s original comments reference “social policies.” He also mentioned what employers tend to think about the intelligence of people of African descent.

This is what’s truly scary about genetics in this day and age. It definitely can be a tool for helping people. But I suspect the greater likelihood is that it’ll be a tool for deciding who’s smart/able, who’s more deserving of opportunity, even who’s more deserving of a chance to live (health insurance companies love this stuff!).

My new web project: DebateWire

A big reason that I read blogs is because there are great writers out there who raise questions that I hadn’t considered before. Often they make me look at things I care about in a new light.

It’d be cool, I thought, to be able to solidify questions of debate as a way to organize blog entries. It’s more specific than categories or tags, and if someone sees a provocative question that really makes them think, they could chime in with their own opinion or argument. I’m particularly interested in politics, but it would work for issues of debate on any controversial topic.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been sort of obsessed with that idea. The project is called DebateWire, and it lets you do what I described above. It’s got some rough edges, but I decided it’s ready for 1st release. Please take a look, and spread the word if you like it.

My next post is an example of how to use it.