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Three new players on the roster to get our ‘comments’ higher …

When I took the job of Managing Editor, I knew I would be working for some results-oriented ownership. When ‘comments’ hits the cellar around where the Washington Senators used to end up in the old days, and bat days aren’t working because Devastin’ Dave isn’t in the lineup enough, its a tough situation. Yeah, I’ve tried all the old tricks: having Jeff work on his spitter, asking Whitney to play more to right, and cajoling Eric to cheat more at third with a runner on. But its’ not working.

So I have to go out into the unsigned free agent arena and come up with three new starters. I’m trying them out today. Let’s see what you Read more

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Claiming Williams: Today, February 3rd …

Today will be a carefully planned and full day of activities.

From the  announcement:

“The theme for the day is ‘Our stories, our community, our responsibilities.’ The program, organized by a steering committee of students, staff, and faculty, will feature dialogue rather than just lecture, with discussions exploring a spectrum of topics from ideological diversity to nontraditional students.”

Claiming Williams has a very interestingly worded Mission Statement:

Mission Statement:
Claiming Williams invites the community to acknowledge and understand the uncomfortable reality that not all students, staff, and faculty can equally “claim” Williams. By challenging the effects of the College’s history of inequality that are based on privileges of class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion, we will provoke individual, institutional, and cultural change.”

Writers of Mission Statements, may find the statement self-fulfilling because Read more

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Ground Rules (prologue)

I invite all participants in this forum to consider the example of the Ground Rules of Deep Springs College, as they may pertain to our personal conduct herein:

The Ground Rules

The Student Body has maintained two self-enforced ground rules since 1917: the first prohibits the use of drugs and alcohol; the second prohibits leaving the valley during academic terms except for ranch or college business, religious services, or emergencies. The two rules are intended to preserve the intensity and integrity of a student’s experience at Deep Springs. Besides forcing serious and often difficult discussion among the students over the merits of a seriously sober and intensely focused educational experience, the ground rules represent a long tradition of making difficult sacrifices for a cause that all who come to Deep Springs believe in.

The Student Body discusses and votes on the ground rules each year, forcing serious consideration of the purpose of Deep Springs, the nature of the community, and the importance of civil law. The ground rules are demanding, but in following and enforcing them the Student Body protects the purpose of Deep Springs.

I am not going to withdraw from this Forum because of the behavior I have seen– I am going to change it. We are all, capable of better than this.

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Will Slack’s new blog

Is here

Here’s the RSS feed

Please add to your bookmarks/RSS readers. You can also follow Will on twitter

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On Responsibility, Speech and Censorship

(promoted from this discussion)

When Pastor Niemoeller was sent to the concentration camps, we wrote 1937; when the concentration camps were opened, we wrote 1933, and the people who were sent to the concentration camps then, were “Communists.”

Who cared for them? We knew about it– it was printed in the papers. Who raised their voice in response– as the Church of Witness? We thought then: Communists, those opponents of religion, those enemies of Christians.

‘Shall I be my brother’s keeper?’

Then they took the sick, the so-called incurables.

I remember a conversation with a man, who had taken up the Pretension, of being a Christian. He told me: “Perhaps it is the right thing. These unhealable people cost the country money, they are only a burden to themselves and to others. Isn’t it the best for all involved, when one casts them out of the Middle?”

Only then did the Church as such come to the matter. Then we spoke of things in strong tones, until such voices were again cut off and suppressed in public.

Can we say, we were not responsible? Read more

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Put you on hold, iterate to agreement …

bored cat

Stanley Fish has a fun article this am in the NYT on phrases that don’t at all mean what they so blatantly pronounce:
” May I put you on hold”. “Your call is important to us”, etcetera.

http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/16/words-you-hate-to-hear/

In the hubbub of Mr Moore, a phrase has been used by David to capture and provide a rationalization for the continuing back-and-forth with some vehemence, denial, reversal of fields, and the burning of straw men (a penny for the old Guy) to arrive at conclusions.

The phrase is “iterate to agreement”. I believe I catch the sense in which David applies the phrase: If we argue long enough, and you keep proving me wrong, it isn’t that I’m a bad person, it just means we are coming closer and closer to a correct answer that may not be what I was positive it was, but means that I helped you arrive at your answer.

But, like the frustrations of waiting through the helpful automated voice of your server’s tech support, at what point do you hang up on the iteration? Or do you enter into it knowingly in the first place?

Meow!

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Web-based Williams People

The Alumni Review urges us to:

Watch this space for a new and improved online version of the Alumni Review—plus the first ever searchable, Web-based Williams People—in the fall.

1) I am a big fan of the Alumni Review but am not sure that they need an improved on-line presence. What would that entail? It might be convenient to have the articles in html rather than just pdf. Perhaps some easier search functionality? Older editions on-line? I am not against those things, I just don’t see much demand for them.

2) What is the world is a “searchable, Web-based Williams People?” Again, whatever it is, I will probably make more use of it than 99.9% of Williams Alumni, so I should not complain. But I can’t even figure out what this means. Ideas?

3) What should the Alumni Review be doing? One answer is just what it is doing now. Another answer (my suggestion) is to taking over some of the functionality that EphBlog provides. The Alumni Office ought to generate an RSS feed of all the blogs maintained by Ephs, a Twitter Feed of all their tweets, a collection of all the news stories that feature Ephs and so on. All this material should be tagged by, at least, class year and, even better, area of interest, consistent with my description of the Williams Conversation.

Summary: Every thing (blog post, op-ed article, tweet) written by an Eph (students, alum, faculty, staff, local resident) is part of the Williams Conversation. If EphBlog demonstrates nothing else, it is that there is a significant demand from Ephs around the world for items of interest from that stream of information. But no Ephs wants to see every item in that stream. Instead, she wants to see all the items connected to someone from her class or all the items touching on her professional field or all the mentions of her hobby. Williams ought to collect, organize and redistribute these tidbits from the Williams Conversation. The more/better that the College does so, the less need there is for EphBlog.

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Thoughts on the Williams Conversation

I had a useful conversation with Ken Thomas ’93 about the future of the Williams Conversation. The context is that Ken is building websites for the reunion classes of 1988 (mine) and 1993 (his) using Drupal. But before diving in to those details, I want to talk again about some of the aspects of the Williams Conversation and how we need to organize them.

First, we have the blogs. These include blogs by any Eph, whether a student, professor, staff, parent, alumni or local resident. We also include news sites (like greylocknews) or relevant web sites (like the Williams forum on College Confidential). Anything with a dedicated feed belongs in this category. Ideally, this would include the posts from the Ephs that participate in group blogs, e.g., Dan Blatt ’85 at Gay Patriot. We want to know about every post by dan, but we don’t care about the posts from his co-blogger. This is easy to do if there are author specific feeds at the group blog, but more difficult otherwise. We currently try to aggregate this information at Eph Planet, which is now fed off of our Eph Blogroll. At our old site, this worked fairly well because we used Planet software. (Thanks to Eric Smith for setting that up.) Things aren’t working nearly as well now because WordPress is not as cool as I thought it was. (Ask in the comments if you want more details.) But, with luck, Ken will solve this problem the “right” way.

What would the right way be? First, we need an interface for the Eph Blogroll “wrangler,” the person who would actually keep track of this. (I volunteer for this and everything else here that does not require actual coding.) That interface would just require three key items for each blog: Name, class and blog url. (Class is left blank for non-alums.) Given this, the software should look for the correct feed. If it finds it, fine. If it can’t the wrangler would need to poke around. Any other data that folks wanted to see (e.g., the blog’s title) should be available from the feed. Given this data, the site can automatically generate a blogroll and an Eph Planet-like collection of individual posts, each with a link back to the original blog.

The wrangler would also have the option of adding “tags” to a fourth (optional) field. These would be things like “finance” or “local” or “faculty” that provided additional information about the source or content of the blog. These tags (along with class information) are used to provide “views” into the large stream of all posts. For example, instead of views all posts, someone might want to just see those from her classmates or those with something to do with finance. Recall our various discussions about Eph Communities of Interest: EphCOI. Big picture: We need to first gather all possible posts of interest and then make it easy for Ephs to see either all of them or just those that they are interested in.

Second, we have news. Unlike the blogs, this sort of information will not usually come to us via an already-created-by-someone-else feed. Instead, we need to make the feed. We have talked about this as Eph News in the past, and that same wish list, slightly edited, still applies.

Eph News would present a feed of news stories (or blog posts or whatever) which mention specific topics. Duplicate items would be deleted or aggregated in some way. There should be a pretty interface for users, along with an RSS feed. Google News is a nice example. Consider a search for “Williams College.”

Although the UI for Google News is fine, the substance is not. For example, there seem to be many important sources that Google News does not (or, more likely, can not) aggregate. A current example is the New York Times. Note the articles which mention “Williams College” but which do not appear in the Google News feed. So, Eph News needs to search more than one source and then collect the resulting articles/posts together.

An interface for the maintainer which allows him (read: me) to easily maintain a list of text strings that we want stories about. Google News is fine, but it is not easy to simultaneously search for stories which mention either “Williams College” or “Morton Schapiro” or “Bethany McLean” or “James MacGregor Burns” or several dozen more strings. We also need to have simple boolean searches like “Chris Murphy” & “Congress”. We don’t want every story that mentions Chris Murphy since it is such a common name, but any story with both Chris Murphy and Congress is probably about the Eph Congressman Chris Murphy.

Although the interface is mainly just one line for each search string (boolean or otherwise), we also want an option field for a list of one or more tags. For example, the line for Bethany McLean would include “class of 1992″ as a tag. The one for “Chris Murphy” & “Congress” might have “politics” as a tag. As with blog posts, the goal is to allow for readers to easily see just the news stories that interest them. Tags will make that (relatively) easy. As always, there is much more that one can do, including users to add their own tags, but the above is good enough to get started.

Third, a decent on-line forum. We can quibble with the details about how to thread the conversations, how to moderate them, whether to require registration or forbid anonymity. I am flexible about all of these issues. But we need something good, perhaps even at the Slashdot level of technical sophistication. Why? Consider the several hundred posts at WSO (handy links from Will Slack ’11) in multiple threads on the topic of the Social Honor Code. We need a forum that brings these conversations together, that allows sub-conversations to easily form, that allows quoting and linking to individual posts. And so on. Most importantly, the forum must allow participation from all Ephs. Drupal may come with this capability built in.

Little of this, of course, is that different from what most users want from an on-line forum. But we still need someone professional to select, maintain and improve that “virtual log.” And, once again, the concept of “views” will become valuable in the second of third iteration. Not only, as at Slashdot, will we want to make higher quality comments more visible. We will also want to allow users to see just those conversations and/or comments that they are interested in. Having moderators who tag conversations as well as tags associated with different commentators will be useful. Yet all that is some distance down the road.

Is there more to be done? Of course! Once we have these three elements up and running, we will want to integrate them. How? I don’t know. Yet I am sure that the journey will be fun.

Getting back to the reunion websites, my view is that, over the next few months, we can think of three stages to this process. First, we need a website that is fairly similar to EphBlog. It should have a central area in which new information, say posts, are presented. Off to one side would be permanent pages. In the case of the class of 1988, these permanent pages or links for give details about the reunion, contact information for class officers and so on. The recent comments would also just refer to related posts, not to posts from anywhere on EphBlog. In the past, I have thought of these as “views” on to EphBlog. It should be able to go to here, for example, and see just material related to the class of 1988. As you can see, this currently uses the “category” feature of WordPress to show you just the posts tagged as “Class of 1988″ but does not change the boxes on the right. It was on our list to add this functionality, but, with luck, Ken will be building a better world for us. So, as a first pass, one could just take EphBlog’s feed (and note that you can get a separate feed for each category), plop it into the middle of a Drupal created page, add some permanent pages in the upper right and, Voila!, instant class of 1988 reunion webpage. In the first stage, these web pages could just use the appropriate feed from EphBlog. Ideally (and to make our friends in the reunion office happy) this will be available by the end of February.

Second, once we are aggregating all Eph-related blogs posts and news articles, as described above, we will be able to substitute much more class-specific into the central news feed at each site. At this point, we might have three different sites up and running: class of 1988, class of 1993, and the proto EphBlog replacement (PER). Each site would have an Eph News and Eph Planet button that provided the appropriate view into the stream of all Eph blog posts and news items. Each would feature a subset of this information in its main page, probably selected by a volunteer from each class. (Or, by default, the main page could take some nominated article from a central location.) The PER could have the main page with a direct feed from EphBlog, but then have the full stream for the Eph Planet and Eph News buttons. With luck, this is could be up, even in a rough form, by the end of March. There would also be discussion forums and book collaboration available.

Third, conceptually, there is only one Williams Conversation, one collection of all blog posts and all news items. Indeed, blog posts and news items are just “things,” much more alike than they are different, perhaps mapped as “nodes” in Drupal. The same applies to items like Record articles and class mailings, scanned pages from old Guls and pictures from Homecoming, campus podcasts and YouTube videos, College Council minutes and football play-by-play broadcasts. They are all a part of the Williams Conversation, all items to be collected and organized, linked to and discussed. If you build it, they will come.

Fourth, and no due date for this, we kill EphBlog and replace it with what Ken and his team have built, a new site whose motto is “All Things Eph,” a site that “encourages, organizes and supports the Williams Conversation.” We select a new Board (without me), and I retire to essay writing, just another blogger who contributes his thoughts to our 200 year-old conversation on the log.

Make it so.

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The Technological Future of EphBlog

The purpose of this post is to elicit community feedback on the technological future of EphBlog. I have strong opinions about our future content, but limited experience for judging good technology, beyond a bias for open source solutions. Our current plan is to abandon Movable Type (our current blogging platform) and move to WordPress (the leading open source blogging tool). In fact, genius EphBlog technologist Eric Smith ’99 and I had breakfast last week and discussed these and other issues. Eric, because he takes the running of his business seriously, does not have endless time to spend on EphBlog. So, we had tentatively decided to give me (and my interns) admin authority over the new site. This allows me and my posse to do stuff for ourselves. The problem is that we may not have the skills required.

Ken Thomas ’93 comments:

I may be a little bit late in the game here, but I’d strongly recommend Drupal over WordPress as it *can* do the former and so much more– before user-custom views, I’d suggest simply having different sections such as Tech and Sports and Politics, surrounding a main page with more general “front page” content. In fact I might even *volunteer* to do it, or…

If nominated, I would volunteer to create and host ’88 and ’93 websites prior to reunion, based on Drupal, on the presumption that it would work toward an alumni-driven, online alumni COI purpose.

Be careful what you volunteer for, Ken! Is Drupal the correct solution? Comments are welcome.

In terms of requirements, the key issues are:

1) We need to have a notion of “views”. A member of the class of 1988 needs to be able to bookmark a page that provides updates on just 1988 related posts and content. That page should have the standard EphBlog templates. Similarly, someone interested in just EphCOI:Finance related posts should be able to bookmark a page just for that. And the same for other views. There also needs to be one main view which aggregates everything.

2) We need the administrative hassle of adding new bloggers (or whate is the term for people who use Drupal? Drupalers?) to be simple. It sure would be nice to have other delivery methods like daily e-mails. How about a better comment system? I am giving serious thought to using the code from Slashdot, but wouldn’t that be a bother? Does that or something like it integrate with Drupal? Are there working examples we can check out?

3) Integration with other tools. It is just about time to move Willipedia over to alumni control. Current students are barely using it. I could imagine reunion alumni having a lot of fun with a well-run Wiki. Imagine one with a page for memories from each entry. How well do Drupal and Wiki software play with each other. 2008 may also be the year that I cajole some students into draining the Williams advising swamp once and for all.

4) We need a better, more automatic way of managing our Eph Blogroll, as well better integration with the Planet software we use for Eph Planet. Or does Drupal do all of that?

5) Our Eph News service is beyond pathetic. Here are my previous thoughts on the topic. Will Drupal make this easier to manage?

And so on. Two questions: First, what should our main platform be, given these goals? Second, is anyone willing to volunteer to be our technological lead, the person behind the scenes who makes EphBlog function? (I want Ken to have a chance to reflect a bit before he volunteers for this.) I will provide the content (mainly by recruiting the contributors) if you maintain the platform.

EphBlog turns 5 in January. Who wants to help take us to the next level?

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The Williams Conversation

What is the best phrase to capture the collection of interesting, public comments made by and about Ephs? My suggestion is the “Williams Conversation.” Every lecture by a member of the faculty, every op-ed in the Record, every comment posted to WSO, every interview on WCFM, every article in the Alumni Review, every question at College Confidential, every New York Times story about the College, every blog entry written by an Eph — all of these, and much more, are a part of the Williams Conversation. If EphBlog 2.0 is to have a mission statement, then my candidate is:

EphBlog encourages, organizes and supports the Williams Conversation.

(Thanks to Rory Kramer ’03 for replacing “moderates” with “supports.”)

I have used the phrase “Williams Conversation” a few times in the past, groping toward a vision of EphBlog as a place where that exchange of views and opinions among open-minded Ephs might flourish. If anyone has any comments about either the phrase or the mission statement, I would be pleased to read them. Whatever else may change, our motto — “All Things Eph” — is fixed.

One problem with the Williams Conversation is that it is every difficult to follow. We try, via tools like the Eph Blogroll and Eph Planet, to aggregate the different voices in the conversation, but they work imperfectly, if at all. In our next version, using WordPress, we hope to do a better job of this. Please join us for the ride.

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