A Fatter Long Tail? Nope.

Chris Anderson posted a really nice illustration a couple of months ago in Visualizing the Rise of the Long Tail. He shows three photos of mountain ranges that cover the same peaks but viewed from a different distances.

This would be a nice metaphor, but the underlying idea is wrong. On the other hand, the pictures are really pretty, so let’s take a look.

I’ve got a few Canon lens brochures somewhere in the garage with similar series of shots demonstrating the perspective of wide angle, normal, and telephoto lenses. Hmm, looking more closely these aren’t different perspectives at all, they are a cheap PhotoShop hack — they just stretch the aspect ratio and re-crop a single photo. Hmm, sounds more like PowerPoint-mind than real perspective, eh?

Anyway, here they are:

The idea behind this visualization is that the long, thin tail is going to get thicker (but stay long, I guess).

Unfortunately, the tail cannot simultaneously be a Zipf distribution (“long”) and be fat. The basic point of that shape is that the tail is both long and thin. If it gets fat it isn’t Zipf anymore. Since every popularity-based empirical distribution is Zipf, betting on that to change is a good way to lose money. The long tail is not going to rise until human nature changes.

Since that visualization is guaranteed to be wrong for overall web traffic, can it be reused for some other idea? It is a neat visual after all. I hate to waste those.

Instead, think of the top one as aggregate traffic and the bottom one as an individual’s traffic. The individual may spend a lot of time with local interests, things that aren’t every going to be a big hit (the fat head of the curve). The middle illustration shows groups of people. The students at Rice University will have some things in common that are not shared by the general public (or even faculty), so they share some “foothill” interests. This probably represents both local (Montrose-area Houston) and preference (ironic humor) interests. Pity, that.

When you add together traffic from related individuals, you see the group interests. When you add together traffic from a random sample (or lots of groups), you see the mainstream, the now-familiar long tail.

Really, all of these are different Zipf distributions, but I think the mountains are pretty, so I’ll stick with those. Maybe the groups should focus on different peaks.

A website tailored to a group should be mainly thinking about the bottom two illustrations. Your visitors will spend a lot of time in the foothills, and that is the ground you need to cover in detail. Community libraries have known this for a long time — their acquisition policy is tuned to local tastes. Paying attention to your customers is great, but don’t pretend that Zipf will bend to your business model.

That Web 2.0 Video

By now, you’ve probably seen Michael Wesch‘s Web 2.0 video. Normally sober people are linking it and the designated cheerleaders are loving it. Me, I’m kinda disappointed. I expect some critical thinking from professors, not just a valentine to the latest buzzword.

The beginning of the vid is OK, basically defining terms and some exposition, with decent visual storytelling. The initial bit about digital text being non-linear isn’t convincing, since it is described in a linear medium, and the “writing as animation” trick was done so much better in “Why Man Creates” by Saul Bass in 1968.

Then we get a tour of RSS readers and blog posting, though I expect that part only makes sense to people who already understand it.

Around 2:55, we see, “Who will organize all this data? We will. You will.” Well, I don’t need Web 2.0 to give me more unorganized data. Not a real step forward. The great benefit of blogs and Wikipedia is the return of the human editor. I can subscribe to an organizer that I trust. I don’t have to organize it myself.

Right around 3:20, it starts quoting Wired and goes off the rails with rampant anthropomorphism. Four fragments are butted together to read, “When we post or tag pictures […] we are teaching the machine […] Each time we forge a link […] we teach it an idea.” Wow. That is some heavy-duty mythology, something I’d expect an anthro prof to analyze, not parrot.

Let’s get this straight. We don’t “teach the machine” and it doesn’t “learn”. We write and link. People write programs to read the text and images and links and to make measurements from them. People write algorithms to pull some information out of those measurements, information useful to other people. The people learn. The people teach each other. The machines are machines and the people are people.

Finally, the vid ends up with “We’ll need to rethink love/family/ourselves.” Really. I think not. I’ve been on the Internet for nearly twenty-five years, I was IM’ing my girlfriend in 1984, and I’ve needed to rethink each of those words, but not because of mail(1) or Usenet or Mosaic or Movable Type. It was because of people that I love and that love me.

The Buddy System

Scoutmaster Minute for Troop 14, February 13, 2007

You know the buddy system, right? You learned that for Tenderfoot. Stick together in groups of two or three for safety.

Today, I heard about a group of seven buddies in Minnesota. They started Scouts together and made a promise that they would stick with it and get Eagle together. Last week, they did that.

Having a buddy for your big goals, or small ones, really helps. Right now, several of you are working on the first aid merit badge. Don’t just go to the class, go with a buddy. Work together, help each other, and make a deal that you are both going to finish the badge.

Get a buddy. Get it done.

The seven new Eagle Scouts are from Troop 224, Lake Elmo, Minnesota. Well done, Scouts.

Weisse Streifen, grüner Rand

A Christmas present from my in-laws was a new car radio for my fifteen year old Miata, with personal installation by my father in law who is far more skilled around cars than I am. Now I can listen to my iPod on my slightly longer commute.

Today it was Autobahn by Kraftwerk. Even keeping under the speed limit (easy in the rain), my time in the car wasn’t quite long enough for the full 22:40 song, I parked at just over 19 minutes. Maybe I’ll fast forward over the beginning on the way home.

The commute is just about right for those classic full-album-side compositions. Now I need to hunt down Fare Forward Voyagers by John Fahey and maybe some 18 minute art rock masterpieces. Or I could just get more Bevis Frond.

Stoves for Boy Scouts

Another blogging Scoutmaster has posted some questions and ideas about stoves for Boy Scouts. Note: I linked to the February archive since the individual posts don’t seem to be linkable, so go there and scroll down to “Stoves for Scouts” and “Stove Feedback”. They are deciding between propane stoves and white gas stoves, two options that weren’t even on the table for our troop, so I’m a bit surprised.

We don’t use white gas stoves with boys. The stoves are finicky, require regular maintenance, and can have dangerous flare-ups if mistreated or misused. But the major reason is that we don’t want the temptation of white gas being available for starting campfires, because it will be used. That is just too dangerous, besides being against BSA policy on fuels and stoves.

We have used white gas backpacking stoves with our Venture Patrol (older, more responsible Scouts), on high adventure trips, and when snow camping. These are personal stoves, nearly all MSR stoves.

Traditional propane cartridges are just too heavy for backpacking. We take several backpacking trips each year, so we would need separate car camping and backpacking stoves.

In the past, we’ve used the Campingaz stoves, but they are tall and tippy with the large pots used for patrols (as are many backpacking stoves) and don’t really work below freezing, which meant we used white gas stoves when snow camping. We were down to only three stoves, thanks to lost stoves and lost parts, so it was time for new equipment.

We ended up with a pretty tough list of requirements, listed here.

  1. Cartridge fuel
  2. Readily-available fuel
  3. Easy to operate
  4. Rugged and reliable
  5. Stable with large pots
  6. Light enough for backpacking
  7. Affordable, we want two stoves per patrol

Amazingly, there is a stove that meets all these and has a few extra advantages. We chose the Coleman Exponent Xpert stove. Luckily, we didn’t have “non-silly name” as a requirement. Warning, Coleman has several stoves with similar names. The one I’m talking about is a four-legged stove that takes PowerMax cartridges.

Let’s check this out against our requirements.

  1. Cartridge fuel: yes.
  2. Readily-available fuel: yes, the PowerMax cartridges are even stocked at Philmont!
  3. Easy to operate: mostly, it needs to run at low power for the first 30 seconds to heat the generator, after that it is very simple.
  4. Rugged and reliable: I know of two other troops who’ve been using this stove for three years with success.
  5. Stable with large pots: adequate, with four legs and about a six-inch spread.
  6. Light enough for backpacking: not super-light at 13.5 oz., but the same weight as white gas MSR stoves.
  7. Affordable: yes, street price is around $50, Coleman’s price through their non-profit purchase program is $37.90, though we used a half-off sale at Amazon for our order.

These stoves even do a few things that weren’t on our list.

  • They work well below freezing, because of the liquid feed for fuel (thus the generator and warm-up time).
  • The cartridges are recyclable, because they can be punctured with the included “green key”. Might want to tie that “green key” to something so it doesn’t get lost, though.
  • Lots of heat output, which helps for larger pots.
  • Remote fuel canister allows safe use of a windscreen.
  • A Sharpie will write on the canister and not rub off, so fuel can be marked with patrol names.

We might use white gas backpacking stoves for a 50-Miler with no resupply. The weight of cartridges can add up for long trips. I really can’t think of any other Scout outing where our new stoves would not be the right choice. Well, maybe a Venture Patrol “Ten Pound Challenge” ultralight outing.

Backpack Gear Test has multiple reviews of this stove’s three-legged brother. The owner review is especially comprehensive. The only common negatives from those reviews are: weight, can be difficult to attach the canister, and the O-ring seals occasionally come off with the canister. Even the lightweight purists seem to like this stove for winter use.

Thanks to Troop 151, Georgtown, TX and Troop 5, Palo Alto, CA for recommending these stoves.

Update: The Complete Walker IV has a lot more info about this stove, back when it was called Peak 1 Xpert instead of Exponent Xpert. The aluminum Powermax cartridges have a better fuel to weight ratio than other cartridges, and seem to be about 50% more fuel-efficient. Chip Rawlins reports using one 300g cartridge per person on a one week trip, so it might work just fine for a 50 Miler.

Further Update: After a couple of outings, these are working well. The push, twist, and latch motion requires pushing kinda hard and the latch isn’t a sharp snap, so the boys have some trouble with getting the cartridges on. Also, if you read a review that says it the stove burns funny for the first minute or so, you’ve found someone who didn’t read the directions. You need to run it on low for 30 seconds to heat up the generator.

VisitorVille: Little People in Your Website

This is a weird approach to website stats. VisitorVille displays your website stats as people getting off the bus, walking around, and going into buildings. It looks almost as exciting as playing Zoo Tycoon. But kinda neat.

I wonder how it shows site search, maybe someone taking a helicopter to another part of the city? I want a jetpack!

The client is Windows-only, so I guess I won’t be trying the demo. Too bad.