Davos Newbies Home

***How communities work
Central to the Davos ethos is the notion of community. I’ve had a fascinating glimpse of how a community can function in a truly vital, energising way thanks to the Internet.

Davos Newbies is now written using an innovative piece of software called Radio UserLand. To help me and other users, there is a discussion group on egroups, where I was assured any problems would be dealt with sympathetically and reasonably swiftly.

When I came into the office this morning, I found nearly 200 email messages from the Radio UserLand discussion group. At one level, that was annoying. I get enough email that I didn’t need another 200. But because RU (as users tend to call it) is important to me, I went reasonably systematically through my inbox. What I discovered demonstrates what makes communities (and online communities in particular) so valuable.

There were two principal reasons for the heavy traffic. The first was a bug that had appeared in RU (this is beta software, so bugs are part of the bargain — the software is free for the moment). A lot of the traffic came from users crying, “Help!” And their cries were answered. First with a simple procedure to work around the bug. Then with a fix for the bug itself. So a first lesson in the importance of community: appeals for help are answered because everyone wants the community to continue functioning.

The second reason is more important. The bug arose because the developers of RU have been cracking through a bewildering range of new features. What I got from the community was not only a steady account of new features but also a flow of feedback on ideas almost as they happened. And this emerged into a bigger discussion about what RU is and how users feel about it. The answers were overwhelmingly positive, even if there was some kvetching about elements of the user interface. So the community provided ideas, feedback and enthusiasm in ways that would never have happened (or at best happened at a glacial pace) in the days of shipping a shrinkwrapped product through an impersonal retail network.

So this community is clearly valuable for both users and the developers (and the developers, not incidentally, love to see the users develop new ideas and tools for the software). It is truly vigorous. I think one could begin to define the quality of almost any product, process or institution by how it successfully it supports and fosters a community with these characteristics.

***Davos A to Z
I’m in the process of creating a Davos A to Z. I’m up to the Gs, but I’d welcome suggestions of further items to add.

***Explaining mathematicians
As someone who was once very good at mathematics (that was before I met people who were amazingly good), I’ve maintained an amateur’s interest in the field. In Davos last January, we even had a session on math, “Delights of the mind”, that was a great success. So I was interested to read Jim Holt’s diary of life at Berkeley’s Mathematical Sciences Research Institute.

There’s one joke I enjoyed: “Why did Fermat write his proof in the butter? Because there wasn’t enough room in the margarine.”

Holt also writes about the affinity mathematicians have for music. When I was at university (and having discovered there were people far matter at math than I was), I did get a chance to collaborate with some of the world’s best mathematicians. A group of them were serious amateur musicians and decided that they would devote a Sunday to playing through Bach’s six Brandenburg concertos. The one thing they were missing was someone who could play the trumpet part in the second Brandenburg. So I sat in for the day and was fine until someone happily suggested we run through the piece again (see the fourth story on this page).

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