On Journalism: Blogging, open-source, the internet, John von Neumann

I wrote a recent post “Kaddish” about a talk by Professor Ari Goldman of Columbia University. After the talk was over I sought him out to personally tell him how much I had enjoyed his talk.

I also gave him my business card. That’s because Professor Goldman is a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. He spent over twenty years as a reporter for the New York Times. I said that it might be possible to arrange for some sort of exchange between his school and IBM, especially IBM Research.

I did this because of the important role the internet and so many other computer-related phenomena are playing in the world around us. If our journalists are going to report on these topics, they need to understand them. For example, two stories in the the Business section of today’s New York Times caught my eye.

The article “Online Player In the Game of Politics” begins with an account of how Mr. Ken Avidor, a Democrat, managed to capture some video in which a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives gave a speech in which she said that only had God told her to become a tax attorney, but he had told her to run for election for Congress. (Why anyone would want to run for office in that god-forsaken place is another story.)

The article then discusses YouTube and Mr. Avidor’s blog. The article even contains the phrase “social networking.”

To write intelligibly about this you need to understand blogs, social networking, and the distribution of video over the internet. For example, how the availability of broadband access has made video distribution possible, the availability of many blogging engines, some of which, such as our WordPress, are available at no charge.

A couple of weeks the buzz was about Oracle and Red Hat. These days it’s about Microsoft and Novell. To understand these stories you have to understand Linux, open-source and their role in the internet.

Another article bears the title, “Newspapers To Test Plan to Sell Ads on Google.” Nuff said on that topic. The newspaper industry’s greatest challenge is how to come to grips with the internet in general, and Google in particular. An article in the Business section last week noted that the revenue of the nations’s newspapers fell markedly last quarter.

Another article has the title “Google Bombs Away.” It’s about a “google bomb,” in which those skilled in internet art manipulate links and such so that unfavorable quotes about a candidate show up near the front of a Google search on the candidate’s name and a particular phrase. For example, “rumsfield borrowed time.”

All these articles can be found in just one day’s edition of a paper. What will the stories be like next week? Next year?

As it happens IBM Research has some folks with an insight into what is coming down the internet pike. Indeed some of them are building that pike as I write this. That’s why I suggested some sort of joint relationship might make sense.

Indeed something along these lines has already been done. I can cite just one instance but I’m am sure there are many others.

In May of 2004 I got an e-mail from a professor at San Jose State University named Joel West. He said he was going to be in Armonk in early June. He said he had been a programmer and reporter before becoming a professor, and he wanted to talk about the Jikes experience. Indeed, we had a nice visit, during which he recorded over an hour’s worth of conversation with Philippe and myself. He kindly sent us a copy of his recording later, and it is to a me a priceless artifact of those wonderful Jikes days. While I have written of them often, to my knowledge Philippe never has. Moreover, this is the only audio record from those days.

That audio artifact reminds me that I saw a link in Steve O’Grady’s blog today to an article about computers and mathematics. That post mentions John von Neumann, one of the greatest mathematicians of the last century, and a seminal figure in the creation of the computer (I have read his famous 1948 report; it is an amazing work.)

Von Neumann died in 1957. The Wikipedia article cited above is excellent. While we do have his writings and even photographs, I saw a documentary about a few years back that said there exists only one recording of one of his lectures, in the form of a “wire recording” (the predecessor to tape). There is also only one video record. It shows him appearing on a science show meant for small children. You can see him, but the only words you are are from the following exchange:

TV guy: What’s that, Professor von Neumann?
Von Neumann: It’s a battery.

But I digress. The interesting part is not that Professor West came to visit us, but the reason he was in the area. He was on his way to IBM corporate headquarters to meet with some of IBM’s most senior executives. It turns out that from time these executives assemble a panel of thought leaders and bring everyone together so they share their insight on the current situation and their view of the future. Indeed, Smart Guy #5, Tom Friedman himself, was also on the panel.

So as open-source developers we should do what we can to help educate our journalists, and also let them educate us.

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