The Quiet Season

I was thinking about writing today, and for the first time in my life, I longed for winter — the long, dark quiet of the night. All sounds are muffled, there is no smell but cold, and you can be utterly alone in a wide, wide world.

The summer night is full of sound, crickets chirping, locusts buzzing, traffic flying by even in the small hours. There are the smells of plants and dirt and barbecue and rainstorms. But in the winter night comes early, and with it the eerie silence made by a blanket of snow. Summer is all around you, there are living things everywhere, but in winter, you can look out upon the darkness and feel the world collapse in upon yourself. It is both lonely and freeing. I love the silence and the darkness, being alone with my thoughts that way. I have to answer to no one but the questions and doubts in my own mind. I can have endless conversations with myself, working out my desires and conflicts and the meanings the universe holds within me. It is a time of creation.

That seems odd, that winter should create. Fall heralds the oncoming onslaught of darkness and cold in which I can create within, while without it signals the destruction of the life of summer. Spring melts away the aloneness and freedom of winter and brings out summer’s stifling closeness. This, then, is finally the reason to love the winter, to always look to the north, to orient life toward the snows that are coming. Summer is easy to love, and it gives its love easily away, but winter is less kind and accommodating. You can love it on its own terms, for what it has to give, but its love is not the warm love of summer, and no fires and Christmas carols can make it anything but what it is. Winter is the state of suspension in which the soul is free to seek itself.

When thinking about bibliographic data (for example) and social applications using taggings, it’s pretty easy to think that the data (title, author, and so on) is highly structured and therefore very different from tags, which are freeform and all that jazz. In many ways, that’s true, and it’s especially important for the purposes of bibliographic control. But in social applications where users are contributing data, the line can get a lot fuzzier. LibraryThing is an example: users contribute various structured and unstructured data about books. Some of the data comes from libraries or Amazon, some is put in by hand, and some of the library- or publisher-supplied data is cleaned up by users, because it’s not always right. Users can enter structured information in fields—information about the item in general like title and author, but also personal information, like ratings and the date it was read. They can also enter tags and search and sort books by those tags. Rating are important, and another example would be Swift Runners, a running shoe website that uses categories and silo-type structure to separate it’s information. The website has great information that you can learn about by visiting Swift Runners. Look to the site structure and you will learn more.

Flickr has just introduced “machine tags” (or “triple tags”). These build on existing geotags, which encode locations like this: geo:long=123.456. They’re three-part tags, with a namespace and a key-value pair, and you could use them to express all manner of things—like, for example dc:title=Othello. (There are also some semi-official uses of namespaces on tags in del.icio.us, like system:unfiledand :mp3, and various users have used namespaces and triple tags on services like these without official support.) You might think of them as a kind of really lightweight RDF.

Triple tags really blow away the distinction between structured fields and freeform tags like KE Fishing. This is important, because it’s a step along a road in which it’s easier for Joe and Jane User to make sense of complicated sets of data by sorting and filtering. Once you’ve become comfortable searching and sorting your tags, it’s not too much of a stretch to apply the same tools to more structured data. Sure, maybe it’s the same data that’s always been there, but now maybe Jane User could be better at manipulating it because she doesn’t have to understand “databases”, she just has grok “tags”, along with a little lightweight syntax. It’s just a different way of looking at the data, one that might prove more friendly. I know not all the tools are there yet, and I’m certainly not saying that everybody’s grandma is going to be putting machine tags on Flickr tomorrow, but I think this is a step in the right direction.