Archive for May, 2006

Peer production economy

Wednesday, May 31st, 2006

Tim Lee points out a couple more cases where critics of open source use fallacious broken windows arguments.

Open source skeptics, particularly those otherwise economically literate, need to be beat over the head about this for awhile.

Meanwhile, I hope economists begin attempting to quantify the value of peer production output.

Suppressing spam in search results

Wednesday, May 31st, 2006

Google’s post introducing nofollow was unfortunately titled “preventing comment spam” leading some to call nofollow a complete failure as comment spam is “thicker than ever.”

If nofollow works it does not prevent comment spam but works against sites linked to in comment spam from appearing in search results. For what it’s worth spammy search results seemed to me a growing problem perhaps a year ago. I haven’t reached a spammy site from a Google search result in a long time. If my experience of less spammy search results lately is not anomalous, has nofollow helped achieve this? Only Google and near peers are in a position to know for themselves, but I certainly wouldn’t write nofollow off as a failure, complete or otherwise.

Google should publish its findings regarding whether nofollow has improved search results. If the answer is yes, web software creators and web publishers wouldn’t make the mistake of turning it off for untrusted links. If the answer is no it should be deprecated.

Addendum 20060601: The next time Google or similar ask publishers to do something the results of which can only be evaluated by the asker a committment to publish an evaluation should accompany the ask.

I should have said Google web search above. As Chris Masse points out in a comment below, blog search still stinks and so far Google and Yahoo! blog search do not improve the state of the art, contrary to my expectations.

Long tail of metadata

Monday, May 29th, 2006

Ben Adida notes that people are writing about RDFa, which is great, and envisioning conflict with microformats, which is not. As Ben says:

Microformats are useful for expressing a few, common, well-defined vocabularies. RDFa is useful for letting publishers mix and match any vocabularies they choose. Both are useful.

In other words RDFa is a technology.

Evan Prodromou thinks the future is bleak without cooperation. I like his proposed way forward (strikeout added for obvious reasons):

  1. RDFa gets acknowledged and embraced by microformats.org as the future of semantic-data-in-XHTML
  2. The RDFa group makes an effort to encompass existing microformats with a minimum of changes
  3. microformats.org leaders join in on the RDFa authorship process
  4. microformats.org becomes a focus for developing real-world RDFa vocabularies

I see little chance of points one and three occuring. However, I don’t see this as a particularly bad thing. Point three will occur, almost by default: the simplest and most widely deployed microformats (e.g., , and rellicense) are also valid RDFa — the predicate (e.g., tag, nofollow, license) appearing in the default namespace to a RDFa application. More complex microformats may be handled by hGRDDL, which is no big deal as a microformat-aware application needs to parse each microformat it cares about anyway. From an RDF perspective any well-crafted metadata is a plus (and the microformats group do very careful work) as RDF’s killer app is integrating heterogenous data sources.

From a microformats perspecitve RDFa might well be ignored. While transformation of any microformat to RDF is relatively straightforward, transformation of RDF (which is a model, not a format) to microformats is nonsensical (well, I suppose the endpoint of such a transformation could be , though I’m not sure what the point would be). Microformats, probably wisely, is not reinventing RDF (as many do, usually badly).

So why would RDFa be of interest to developers? In a word, laziness. There is no process to follow for developing an RDF vocabulary (ironic), you can freely reuse existing vocabularies and tools, not write your own parsers, and trust that really smart people are figuring out the hard stuff for you (I believe the formal background of the Semantic Web is a long-term win). Or you might just want to, as Ben says “express metadata about other documents (embedded images)” which is trivial for RDF as images have URIs.

Addendum 20060601: The “simplest” microformats mentioned above have a name: elemental microformats.

Undermine censorship

Monday, May 29th, 2006

It gladdens me to see that Irrepressible.info, an Amnesty International campaign “to show that online or offline the human voice and human rights are impossible to repress”, includes a supply-side anti-censorship component:

If you have a website or blog, help us spread the word and undermine unwarranted censorship by publishing censored material from our database directly onto your site.

The more people take part the more we show that freedom of expression cannot be repressed.

Unfortunately the mechanism offered, a javascript include, only requires a censor to block a single site (fragments.irrepressible.info) to prevent censored browsers from seeing the censored material. Worthy idea anyhow, not least because awareness of censored material is raised in non-censored areas, which will result in increased diffusion of censored ideas through human networks.

Via Tom Palmer.

Retarding the future

Monday, May 29th, 2006

David Friedman’s post on The Death of Copyright, New Art Forms, and World of Warcraft:

As increasing bandwidth makes it more and more difficult to protect movies by either legal or technological means, I expect that we will see more and more of a shift away from conventional movies towards substitutes that, like games, are different each time you play them.

There is, however, a countervailing effect. As it becomes easier and easier to replace actors with computer generated images, the cost of making movies, even quite elaborate movies, will fall. For the net result, stay tuned—for the next decade or so.

Nothing new for anyone paying attention, but a nice summary of where content production is headed — server-mediated or supercheap.

Protection of old business models presumably slows the transition of capital and talent into the service of the new, perhaps lowering the probability Hollywood will be a dominant center of cultural production in the long term. Or perhaps the additional wealth afforded by protection now puts Hollywood in a better position for the future. Regardless of impact on Hollywood’s prospects, protection now would seem to retard the future.

Corporate futarchy

Monday, May 29th, 2006

Todd Henderson:

Conditional prediction markets (e.g.,, what will Firm X’s stock price be in one year if the strategy proposed by a corporate raider is adopted) could allow corporations to estimate the effect of different major decisions, such as whether to acquire a target, whether to adopt a governance reform, or whether to dismiss a CEO, on stock price.

Henderson doesn’t take this as far as corporate governance by , but that’s the logical conclusion if such prediction markets work well.

Via Chris Masse of course (Mr. Liquidity, please note “…make it possible to generate sound predictions even in very thin markets”).

Capital Market Consequences

Monday, May 29th, 2006

Art Hutchinson quoting a subscriber-only WSJ article:

In 2000, nine of every 10 dollars raised by non-U.S. companies outside their domestic markets was through U.S. exchanges… By last year, only one in 10 such dollars was raised in New York.

Hutchinson:

As the WSJ notes, that’s a truly radical change. Some of it is no doubt driven by exchange rates, but only some. Another major factor has been increased regulatory oversight in the U.S., (e.g., Sarbanes-Oxley), providing a sobering lesson in the unintended consequences of well-meaning legislation in a fluid, free-market global economy.

I’d strike “well-meaning” from the above, but another beautiful example nonetheless.

People should have the same freedom to respond to stupid policymakers by deserting the policymakers’ jurisdiction.

Memorial Day

Monday, May 29th, 2006

On this (U.S.) I honor , deserters and others not stupid enough to be darwinized at the command of their parentlandjurisdiction‘s politicians.

Tribal assurance contracts

Sunday, May 28th, 2006

Today’s LA Times has a story about a group trying to get 5,000 people to buy timeshares on a Fijian island as part of a social experiment. A cynic would think Tribewanted.com has figured out how to create reality TV very cheaply by getting people who claim to dislike reality TV to pay to be cast members. I’m not that cynical.

Sounds like a reasonable idea, with passing resemblance to far more ambitious projects such as seasteading and the . I hope Tribewanted succeeds and is copied by dozens of copycat projects catering to different groups.

The Tribewanted FAQ says:

If, in the unlikely event that Adventure Island doesn’t go ahead, tribewanted will refund 100% of all membership fees. Unfortunately, if a tribe member decides to cancel their membership or not visit Adventure Island they will not be able to get a refund of any kind.

They could’ve made it even easier to sign up by offering a greater than 100% refund in case the project does not go ahead.

Via Boing Boing.

Divide the Beast

Saturday, May 27th, 2006

Jonathan Rauch’s Stoking the Beast in the Atlantic is deliciously ironic:

Niskanen recently analyzed data from 1981 to 2005 and found his hunch strongly confirmed. When he performed a statistical regression that controlled for unemployment (which independently influences spending and taxes), he found, he says, “no sign that deficits have ever acted as a constraint on spending.” To the contrary: judging by the last twenty-five years (plenty of time for a fair test), a tax cut of 1 percent of the GDP increases the rate of spending growth by about 0.15 percent of the GDP a year. A comparable tax hike reduces spending growth by the same amount.

Why? Perhaps because more government seems like a better deal when taxes are higher and vice versa. Those campaigning for small tax increases or decreases (any seen in the last 25 years) may wish to reexamine their strategies. I expect that really large and immediate changes would not be governed by this effect, as spending changes of similar magnitude would have to occur simultaneuously.

It is too bad tax rates are not explitly linked to spending. The only way to effect a tax cut should be to cut specific programs and the only way to fund specific programs should be to raise taxes.

Rauch’s article is justly getting attention, including many comments on the Washington Monthly website. That site discussed a slightly older version of the same data. The paper by William Niskanen and Peter Van Doren includes another intriguing observation (bold added, italics in original):

My brief article in 2003 presented evidence that the rate of growth of real federal spending in the years since World War II was lower during administrations in which at least one house of Congress was controlled by the other party. The only two long periods of fiscal restraint were the Eisenhower and Clinton administrations, during which the opposition party controlled Congress for the last six years of each administration. Conversely, the only long period of unusual fiscal expansion was the Kennedy/Johnson administration, which brought us both the Great Society and the Viet Nam War with the support of the same party in Congress.

One reason for this condition is that the prospect for a major war has been substantially higher under a unified government. American participation in every war in which the ground combat lasted more than a few days – from the War of 1812 to the current war in Iraq – was initiated by a unified government. One general reason is that each party in a divided government has the opportunity to block the most divisive measures proposed by the other party.

My own judgement is that our federal government may work better (less badly) when at least one house of Congress is controlled by a party other than the party of the president. American voters, in their unarticulated collective wisdom, have voted for a divided government for most of the past 50 years. Divided government is not the stuff of which legends are made, but the separation of powers is probably a better protection of our liberties when the presidency and the Congress are controlled by different parties.

I’ve suggested vote trading for divided government.