As part of a new occasional series of interviews here on Six Log, we're going to be talking to people who actually make stuff, as opposed to the usual interviews with people who just talk about stuff. The goal is to help focus attention on interesting new technologies related to weblogs, and to discuss some of the ideas that influence weblog culture.
Our first interview subject is Paul Bausch, author of Amazon Hacks. Paul was an early and influential developer in the weblog community who's definitely helped make things, with an impressive roster of creations that includes Blogger and the Pyra application while at Pyra, the book We Blog, the popular SnapGallery photo album script, and most recently Amazon Hacks, his new book published by O'Reilly as part of their popular Hacks series of guides for geeks.
PB, as Paul is usually known online, shares that common geek trait of being more inclined to build new things than to spend time on self-promotion, and so a talk with him offers a good opportunity to discuss some less-known areas of his expertise, such as permalinks, weblogs and journalism, and the potential of Amazon Web Services.
And stay tuned, as we'll posting info about the Movable Type Amazon Hack discussed in the book. Paul's even cooked up an exclusive Amazon Hack just for TypePad users, which we'll be posting details about soon as well.
Q: You've been called, mostly by me, "the father of the permalink", and in discussions such as the one Tom Coates began a few months ago, it's inarguable that you were a key contributor in the idea of one link relating to one atomic, idea-sized post on a weblog. That connection, according to people like David Galbraith, is the link that will kick start the Semantic Web. How do you think these new perspectives on something as fundamental to the web as links are having an impact?
We definitely weren't sitting around the Pyra office one day asking ourselves, "How can we kickstart the Semantic Web? Aha...permalinks!" Like most technical innovations (including Blogger itself), the feature came about as a solution to a technical problem. The problem was that links were rolling off of weblogs' front pages, so references made by other sites were quickly out of date. If you followed a link to another weblog and couldn't find the post the referring site was talking about, it was frustrating. You had to start digging around their archives--or even worse--just move on with your life. Several people were playing around with permalinks as <a name> references within the front page, but we realized it needed to linked to a permanent location--even after the post scrolled off the front page. I knew how to implement this technically, so I added it to Blogger. I don't think it's fair to call me the "father of the permalink" (though I think it's funny), because Pyra was an atmosphere of ideas. It's tough to credit any one person for a Blogger feature--it was the atmosphere of openness and continual brainstorming between ourselves and our users that led to the ideas.
I think the effect has been a good one. I can go into someone's archives from 2000 and find links to posts on other blogs that are still relevant. I don't have to search around or guess which bit of information they were quoting or talking about--it's right there. Of course the Web is ephemeral and constantly changing, and I think the permalink convention added a bit more stability.
Q: SnapGallery is one of your most popular creations, allowing people to run a Windows script on their desktop to create a photo album. Using Windows built-in scripting seems quite rare, except for people writing worms and viruses. What made you choose this unusual platform for the application? And how have the users of the script surprised you?
Unfortunately, that means the scripts have access to Outlook and the FileSystem, and that's how people have written viruses using Windows Scripts. Now that programs disable executing scripts sent via email by default, it's gotten more difficult for a script-virus to take off. The problem I've run into with snapGallery is that programs like Norton Antivirus see any Windows Script as a threat. People often run it and get warnings about "malicious code is trying to run on your computer." snapGallery is not malicious, despite what Norton thinks! ;)
What's nice about Windows Scripts is that the code is all there for you to play with. You can completely change the design around with just a little work. (You should know this well Anil--you created an XHTML compliant version of snapGallery.) People always surprise me with what they've done. Some have used snapGallery to create an index for a CD of pictures. Others have used it to generate the XML necessary for Flash picture galleries. I also see variations on the default design all the time. And the fact that you can run it natively on the most widely used operating system has meant that non-techies have been able to tinker with it and adapt it to their needs.
Q: Most people who are familiar with your work don't know that you have a formal journalism education. There's been so much talk over the years of the relationship between journalism and weblogs, without any real focus on the lessons to be learned. What ideas do you think the journalism world and the weblog realm can learn from each other?
I went into studying journalism and mass communications full of hopes and ambitions only to leave with them shattered beyond repair. ;) I'm sure everyone's experience is different, I just found the day-to-day system of having the news dictated by services like AP and UPI extremely discouraging.
The task of the journalist as I found it in college was to take wire stories, find a local angle, and rewrite it in your own words. Having a national organization set the agenda for local news service seemed ludicrous to me. Open up your local newspaper and see how many articles are written by local writers. Watch your local news broadcast and see how many truly local stories there are that aren't just an angle of a national story. There are so many stories to be told that never see the light of day because news organizations have this national focus. This is where I think weblogs could help fill the void: people writing about the events they're involved with.
People are experts at what they're doing. Professional reporters are good at putting things in context, but they don't have the depth of knowledge in specific areas that the people they're covering (and often their readers) do. The weblog format provides the structure for people to write about their daily lives--and journalists could look to this as a source of expert knowledge. I don't necessarily mean "expert knowledge" as in someone who can tell you how atoms rotate; I mean there is probably someone who can go into minute detail about the gradeschool soccer team down the street--they have expert knowledge of that. Why not turn them loose to people who are interested in that subject? With some encouragement (and some easy to use tools), everyone could become reporters. Part of this is getting the flood of expert data routed to the people who would benefit from it.
Q: One of the most innovative expressions of the psychology of weblogs I've heard was when you described the time stamp on a post as a "social contract". Can you explain what you meant by that, and what the implications of that contract are?
Are you sure I said that? That doesn't sound like me. ;) I think organizing information in reverse-chronological order makes the most sense for data that is continuously updated. And having the date header and timestamp as integral pieces means time is always present. One thing that's present in any offline conversation you have is the date and time. It may be in the background, but any participants have the time in common. That's missing from a lot of Web pages.
Unless there's some sort of timestamp, you don't know when information on a web page was added or changed. Also, many traditional websites try to fit all of the content into a hierarchy of navigation. What if something doesn't quite fit into the scheme, though? It probably doesn't get published. Enter weblogs with absolutely no organization except time. Suddenly everything is worth publishing--including what you had for lunch. I think Weblogs are successful because they bring that shared sense of time to the Web, and aren't worried about strict categorization. And ordering them with the newest first means there's going to be something new--soon! I think we've seen the implications: more and more weblogs joining the conversation.
Q: Amazon Hacks obviously benefits from the success of Google Hacks, but you're talking about a much richer set of APIs and a site that actually lets people make money. How do you think that will impact the reception for your book?
Yes, Amazon Hacks is following directly in the path made by the previous books. I think O'Reilly has really hit a nerve with this series, and I feel very lucky to be involved. I'm not sure how this difference will affect the book because making money is not the sole focus. Google Hacks is about working with Google in ways that go beyond the search box. Amazon Hacks is about digging deeper into Amazon in the same way--making money just happens to be one aspect of that. People won't find the secret to making a fortune with Amazon, but they'll find ways to tap into their Marketplace and Associates programs that they might not have thought of (or known about).
The profit motive is an interesting distinction between Google and Amazon's APIs, and I think it'll be another incentive for people to check out the book.
Q: How would you explain the importance of the Amazon API to people who might just see it as more web services hype? What are the main areas of potential that you think will lead to innovative applications?
When you make something simpler, innovation can happen. Look at the way weblogs took off in 1999 when a bunch of tools came along to take the tedium of out maintaining them. Suddenly you didn't have to know FTP, HTML, or a thing about servers to update a website every day. In the same way, I think Web Services like Amazon's API will make sharing data much simpler. An agreed-upon standard means that developers can speak a common language to exchange information. It takes the complexity out of getting applications to talk to each other. If you develop with Perl, Java, C, PHP, or whatever your platform of choice, you can exchange data using the common tools HTTP and XML.
I think it means information will be able to move between applications easier, instead of staying locked in their boxes. It seems absurd that I should have eight different applications to send email, instant messages, weblog posts, book reviews, sale items, and images when they are all essentially a text area with a send button. I know it's more complicated than this in reality, but I think Web Services have a role to play in simplifying communication. This simplification will lead to innovation, and the cycle will continue.
Paul Bausch is the author of Amazon Hacks and maintains his personal weblog at onfocus.com. His professional site lives at pbcoding.com. In the next few days, we'll be posting information on an Amazon Hack for Movable Type users that's featured in the book, as well as an exclusive TypePad Amazon Hack which Paul has created just for this interview. In the meantime, go grab a developer's token for Amazon Web Services if you haven't already, and check back soon for more API magic from PB.