I caught up with the late blight story (Reuters) a bit late -- all the more embarrassing because I'd been shooting the breeze at the Community Garden with somebody from the University of Maine Co-Operative Extension Service (MPBN) a week ago, and they'd warned me that big box stores in the area had managed to infect tomato plants in their garden centers with late blight spores -- and the rain and the cold had made conditions ideal for the spores to spread. (That's A Bad Thing, since the Irish Potato Famine was caused by late blight.) Anyhow, I started googling, and after an hour or so came up with some good images (so I knew what to look for), solutions (like not just ripping the plants out, since that spreads the spores), and measures for prevention (copper dust).
Since late blight can kill a garden in 3 days, immediate action was needed. So I went down to my local hardware store to buy some powerful and nasty copper spray (and not some weak tea dust, either, but the right stuff). They were out. I then spent the rest of the afternoon trundling about the area on our woefully inadequate public transportation system looking for it: Lowes, Wal-Mart, and even Aubochon (a small Maine chain) were all out. So I returned to the local hardware store, and picked up some Rotenone with 7% copper, and promptly dusted my tomato patch with it -- staving off, hopefully, the spores.
Leaving aside the role of big box garden centers in creating the growers' equivalent of in-hospital infection, there were a couple of market failures here:
1. You'd think that the big box stores, having recalled the infectious tomato plants, would have at least stocked the means to remedy the infection! But no -- nothing on the shelves. Aubuchon at least was able to figure out what to special order, but the order would have taken at least a week to arrive, and late blight can do its work in 3-5 days. So, the big box stores lost a sale.
2. You'd think that my local hardware store, which has MPBN on the radio next to the cash register, would have ordered copper, anticipating a demand for it. The late blight problem was known to be in the area at least a week ago, at the Community Garden, but the copper solution wasn't in the area when and where I needed it. Now, that store didn't lose a sale, but making customers buy a product known to be inferior is not a recipe for sustained growth.
In addition, there's a larger failure to invest in what has been termed social capital:
I was able to broadcast my search results to a wider audience through blog posting and mail, but just as in a broadcast, I couldn't be sure who got the message. Moreover, anybody who did get the message would have found it difficult to re-broadcast enhancements back to "my" audience. The model is wrong: I don't really want to broadcast to an audience. I want to have a conversation with a community, so we can all refine our understanding and take action together. Not only that, I want a community that answers the question "Who then is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29) not through mere physical proximity, or even digital proximity on this or that stovepiped site, but because (at least) we have subjects of mutual interest in common. What I want, in fact, is a socially networked topic map. What does that mean and how would it work?Let's review my time-wasting trek in search of copper dust for subjects of interest. There are at least the following subjects (leaving aside for the moment the philosophical question of whether subjects can exist in isolation, outside any relationship with each other ("What is the sound of one subject....")):
1. Late blight (Phytophthora infestans). 2. Potatoes (and tomatoes, eggplant and peppers). 3. The class of nightshade (Solanaceae) plans, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. 4. My local big box stores (and the class of all big box stores) 5. My local hardware store. 6. Copper dust. 7. Rotenone with copper dust.And we might consider associating at least some of these subjects -- I've underlined the subjects that are association type -- as follows
8. Late blight can infest all nightshade plants. 9. Potatoes (and tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers) are* nightshade plants. 10. Big box stores are a vector of infection for late blight. 11. Copper dust is a remedy for late blight.To list just a few. Of course, I too am a subject (of interest to at least myself) and more importantly, my garden is a subject:
12. Sam's garden is located in Zone 5. 13. Sam's garden is planted with potatoes and tomatoes. (Though not eggplant. Sam hates eggplant with a passion; always has). 14. Sam's garden has a UV index of high year-on-year. 15. Sam's garden has a UV index** of low for the month of July. 16. Sam's garden has a Rain and Gloom Index of 98/100 for the month of July.***Now let's imagine how I would use those subjects (1-16) to save my garden from late blight. Let's imagine that, instead of using anything electronic, we're using a deck of old-fashioned punch cards, as at left. (Just because a technology is old doesn't make it bad. Google's page rank algorithm is based on citation analysis for scientific papers, a technology pioneered well over 30 years ago. Google's scale is new; its implementation is new; its business model is new; but its data model is not new.) That deck represents the social capital we've invested in subjects of mutual interest to us, by making cards and punching holes in them. Each hole round the edge of each card is a subject and each subject has a card. (At this point, let's remember that in the association Late Blight can infest nightshade plants not only are "Late Blight," "can infest", and "nightshade plants" all subjects, but that "Late blight can infest nightshade plants" is a subject too.**** So, if I want to find out everything there is to know about "late blight" -- at least in the deck -- I run the needle through the "late blight" hole. When I lift the needle up, these are the cards I get back from the deck:
1. Late blight (Phytophthora infestans). 8. Late blight can infest all nightshade plants. 10. Big box stores are a vector of infection for late blight. 11. Copper is a remedy for late blight.RIght away, I know that copper is my remedy. That's because, working with my deck, I've been looking for subjects, and getting a few good hits (rather than millions of hits, as in Google). Now, let's take another step, and consider how our deck of subjects might work if it lived online, and if we were investing our social capital online, in software on a web-site, instead of in punched cards (or hardly at all, as in the case of my Google search). For one thing, we could put the software needle in more than one subject hole at one time, so we could get more interesting and useful results. Suppose I don't listen to MPBN, so I don't know about late blight, but I do want to look up potatoes. One (software) subject, one (software) needle:
2. Potatoes (and tomatoes, eggplant and peppers). 3. The class of nightshade (Solanaceae) plans, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. 9. Potatoes (and tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers) are* nightshade plants. 13. Sam's garden is planted with potatoes and tomatoes.(The last card, #13, is there because I added it myself). Using two needles, still potatoes, and now one with nightshade, I see this result:
... 3. The class of nightshade (Solanaceae) plans, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. 9. Potatoes (and tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers) are* nightshade plants. 13. Sam's garden is planted with potatoes and tomatoes. ... 3. The class of nightshade (Solanaceae) plans, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. 9. Potatoes (and tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers) are* nightshade plants. 3. The class of nightshade (Solanaceae) plans, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. 8. Late blight can infest all nightshade plants.Yikes!! So, I started with potatoes, found late blight through nightshade, and went on to find copper when I needled the deck for light blight remedies. That's important, but even more importantly, I can add the following to the social capital of the deck:
17. Late blight can infest all potatoes.Now, potatoes would come up with the first, potato, needle, instead of my discovering it with the nightshade needle.***** So the community is better off because I've invested some social capital. Even more importantly than that, if the local hardware store owner had been monitoring the online deck of subjects, they could not only have ordered the copper in time (since it would have been evident that everybody with potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, or eggplant in their gardens would need it), he could have informed the community -- not in a broadcasting way, but targetting exactly those gardeners who needed it, by adding the card:
18. "Local Hardware Store" has in stock copper dust:or at least those who had added cards like:
13. Sam's garden is planted with potatoes and tomatoes.Leading to a new deck that works like thisL
13. Sam's garden is planted with potatoes and tomatoes. 17. Late blight can infest all potatoes. 11. Copper is a remedy for late blight. 18. "Local Hardware Store" has in stock copper dust:And if I'd had a software deck of cards set up with software hole punched as I have just described it, I wouldn't have had to spend a sunny day trundling about the Bangor area to discover that what I needed wasn't there. Because both I and my local hardware store's owner invested social capital in a local system, I would have gotten the copper dust I needed, locally, and spent the day putting in another row or two of carrots. Oh, and we'll call the software deck of cards a topic map, because that is the technical term of art for it. * * * More, possibly, to come -- because this post is way too short! NOTE * "Are" means "are instances of the class of." NOTE ** Not sure what the measure of day-to-day sunniness is, so I used UVI NOTE *** OK, I made this one up. NOTE **** Can you talk about it? If yes, it's a subject. NOTE ***** I could also agitate with site administrators to add some logic to the site software. That is, if all nightshade plants are subject to late blight, and potatoes are nightshade plants, then potatoes are subject to late blight.