Archive for January, 2007

Russian neanderthal vanguard

Monday, January 15th, 2007

Tom Palmer points out new laws cracking down on immigrant employment in Russia with a post title comment “Lou Dobbsian Economics Put into Practice in Russia”.

Palmer’s post is accompanied with a picture of marching Russian neo-nazis — neo-communists? — skinheads in any case, with armbands that would be unambiguously nazi if not for a hammer and sickle where a swastika would be expected.

It’s probable that Russian politicians are balder in their anti-immigrant pronouncements and Russian police more brutal in their enforcement, but the laws don’t sound all that foreign.

BBC:

President Vladimir Putin spoke of the need to defend the interests of the native population.

Markets – often a source of employment for Russia’s army of immigrant workers – were singled out.

“Markets” means open air retail, I gather, but delicious nonetheless. Longer BBC article here.

Reuters:

Russia introduced new laws on Monday that experts say are intended to plug a hole in the country’s labor market while discouraging foreigners from settling there permanently.

The laws, passed by parliament last year, are designed to streamline the red tape foreigners have to go through to live and work in Russia legally but will also reduce their numbers.

One change will implement a gradual ban on foreigners working as traders in outdoor markets where immigrants dominate, causing friction with ethnic Russians.

‘We want to get rid of illegal immigration,’ said Denis Soldatikov, a spokesman for the Federal Migration Service.

Television pictures on Monday showed rows of locked shops at a market in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok heavily dependant on traders from neighbouring China.

‘The move was harmful because it will undermine trade,’ Vitkovskaya said. ‘I only hope no one is going to abide by it.’

But deputy Federal Migration Service head Vyacheslav Postavnin disagreed, saying the markets will adjust.

‘There are Russians to be hired,’ he told Rossiiskaya Gazeta daily. ‘Market owners will make sure that their business continues.’

Whenever you hear similar from those closer to home think of the skinheads and look in the mirror.

Your jurisdiction should open its borders

Saturday, January 13th, 2007

The January 13-19 Economist has a review of (and my first encounter with) ‘s book Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them. The title and the review make the book sound a bit wishy-washy, but a review in the Guardian, reprinted on Legrain’s site makes it sound much better.

The central thrust is that immigration is economically beneficial. Fluid migration is as dynamic as every other form of free trade. “If you believe that the world is an unequal place and that the rich should do more to help the poor,” he writes, “then freer international migration should be the next front in the battle for global economic justice.”

Ironically, the book appears to not yet be available in the U.S. Amazon Canada will have it January 30.

Bogotá, as with the world

Saturday, January 13th, 2007

I have never visited , this is not a commentary on a city I do not know. I want to point out that Tyler Cowen’s thoughts on Bogota serve as a (presumably unintentional) metaphorical description of the entire world (sure, what you’re thinking, I just happened to notice this time).

How can such a nice place be in the midst of a civil war and guerrilla uprising? Why do leaders in the highest reaches of government secretly work with the paramilitaries? Does every radio station in the country play Juanes, and how long will their Tower branches last?

That excerpt is gratuitous, some of the rest requires just a bit more imagination.

Worse than crippleware

Saturday, January 13th, 2007

Last post I went along with a NYT article (and apparently recent court case) in describing Digital Restrictions Management as . Bad call on my part.

Traditionally crippleware is free and its aim is to get you to buy a non-crippled version. With DRM you pay for crippled media and its aim to ensure the media stays crippled. Is there any widely deployed DRM that offers to turn itself off completely for the right price?

Perhaps a better term, if not from the customer’s perspective then that of certain businesses, is suicideware. Case in point, Windows Vista. I was reminded of this when Boing Boing just pointed (again) to A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection, the “executive executive summary” of which is “The Vista Content Protection specification could very well constitute the longest suicide note in history.”

From the aforementioned customer’s perspective, traditional suicideware is just temporally crippled-ware. For a software business, perhaps suicideware (I’m making this up) is that which forgets who the customers are, tempting the gods of randomness. Rouletteware? Deathwishware?

iHandcuffs for primitives

Saturday, January 13th, 2007

Via Luis Villa, tomorrow’s New York Times has a decent article headlined Want an iPhone? Beware the iHandcuffs. The article title is right (Villa’s summary is a better description, if not a better headline: “iTunes and DRM hurts perfectly innocent customers, fails to stop piracy, and reduces competition”), but it leads off wrong:

like its slimmer iPod siblings, the iPhone’s music-playing function will be limited by factory-installed “crippleware.”

Wrong, the objects of lust can play any MP3 file that is not itself crippled. The (the handcuffs to avoid) is not factory-installed, but purchased from the — tracks crippled by DRM.

Perhaps (the media player and ITunes Store browser), some version of which I assume is factory-installed on the , is perhaps more akin to . Not the type that takes over your computer without your knowledge, but the type that presents you with many opportunities to download and perhaps pay for software and porn that will cripple your computer. It’s a fine line.

The NYT article has a great closing:

IN the long view, Mr. Goldberg said he believes that today’s copy-protection battles will prove short-lived. Eventually, perhaps in 5 or 10 years, he predicts, all portable players will have wireless broadband capability and will provide direct access, anytime, anywhere, to every song ever released for a low monthly subscription fee.

It’s a prediction that has a high probability of realization because such a system is already found in South Korea, where three million subscribers enjoy direct, wireless access to a virtually limitless music catalog for only $5 a month. He noted, however, that music companies in South Korea did not agree to such a radically different business model until sales of physical CDs had collapsed.

Pointing to South Korea, where copy protection has disappeared, Mr. Goldberg invoked the pithy aphorism attributed to the author William Gibson: “The future is here; it’s just not widely distributed yet.”

I’m skeptical that the emphasized (by me) portion above is not exaggerated, though I’ll grant that South Korea is probably some years ahead of music businesses in the U.S. and other places similarly primitive in this respect, which may undergo a transition similar to South Korea’s. But we can also look to markets that started from a very different place, e.g., China.

We could beneficially spend more time looking for examples that may be ahead of the pack or simply different, and not just in the music business.

iCandy, Patented !

Tuesday, January 9th, 2007

Tom Evslin says Apple Fails to Reinvent Telecommunications Industry:

Steve Jobs claims that iPhone will “reinvent” the telecommunications sector. Wish it were so but it ain’t!

The design of the phone – no hard buttons, all touch on screen, sounds like everything we expect from Steve and from Apple: it’s all about the GUI and that part’ll be fun. But the business relationship is as old school as it can get: exclusive US distributorship through Cingular

Short term this is a good tactic for Apple because it protects the iPod franchise for a while. Long term I think it’s terrible strategy. It invites an endrun from someone who IS willing to reinvent the industry or simply allies themselves with a Cingular competitor.

Remember how wonderful the Mac GUI was? But it only ran on machines from Apple. Remember how crappy Windows was at first? But it ran on machines from everyone and their brother. And now there’s Linux – even less restricted – running on anything that moves. Tell me again why it makes sense to have a phone that runs only on a service from at&t (in the US).

Like other Apple products, the is eye candy (ugly to me), but not revolutionary.

It looks like the FIC Neo1973, showing at CES, due to ship this quarter for US$350, running the platform (presentation), will be more in the right direction — unlocked and open for developers. Andy on the openmoko list has a very early comparison.

The Neo1973′s big missing feature, at least initially, is apparently Wi-Fi, due to a lack of open drivers. As a late adopter of gadgets, I can wait. I acquired my first and only mobile phone in 2003, and it’s easy on the eyes.

That said, I’d really like Portable online by 2010 to be true:

This claim is judged YES if and only if, by January 1, 2010, in any state with more than 5 million inhabitants, at least 25% of the adult population are “portably online”. A “state” can be a country or a member state in a federation.

Read more for how “portably online” is defined (the contract was written in 1995). My current guess (and the market’s; last trade at 30) is that without a more significant revolution than we’re seeing the criteria won’t be met before 2010, but not terribly long after.

OpenMoko via Jon Phillips. Second word in post title refers to a silly slide found at Engadget.

Wikipedia advertising redux

Monday, January 8th, 2007

Many good comments regarding supporting advertising on Wikipedia (or not) here and also on Slashdot and other blogs. I may further characterize and respond to these in aggregate (see the update to my first post for some of this). For now I want to call out or respond to a few particularly worthy comments and criticisms.

Evan Prodromou’s comment:

One thing I wanted to respond to was that a couple of people seemed to think it incorrect on my part to refer to Wikipedia’s Web traffic as a “resource”. I’m not sure what else to call a potential source of tens, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars annually in income. But if people know a better word for it, please substitute that in.

Let me also point out that wikipedia.org’s current huge Web traffic is not a long-term sure thing. As Open Content, the encyclopedia can be copied onto any other Web site on the Internet, and sites like answers.com show that this can be lucrative. Anyone familiar with the Open Directory (http://dmoz.org/) knows that it’s copied to Google Categories, Yahoo Directory, and dozens of other high-profile sites. In 5 years, will there be thousands of mirrors of Wikipedia on the Web? Will wikipedia.org become more like editors.dmoz.org — an editorial interface for a data set served from many other servers?

If that’s the case, will we look back on the high-traffic days of 2005-2008 as the time when we wasted somewhere around half a billion dollars in potential revenue? Will the WMF really be glad at that point that it did so?

I hadn’t thought of this scenario and don’t consider it likely, but do think it is an important consideration. I think the canonical was seriously disadvantaged in two ways Wikipedia is not — a fairly closed editorial process (e.g., I’ve applied a few times over the years and don’t recall getting any feedback, not even rejection) and probably a horrible editor interface (e.g., I was accepted as an editor at Chef Moz, a sister site of dmoz.org — and ran away screaming).

How could Wikimedia sites lose traffic to copies? Presumably much of Wikipedia traffic comes from Google. If Google published a branded copy (with ads of course) and promoted it in (or above) search results, Wikipedia would presumably lose lots of traffic (and many people would call Google evil for it, at least for awhile). I’m sure there are more creative scenarios in which Wikimedia sites lose traffic.

Peter McCluskey:

Mike Linksvayer has a fairly good argument that raising X dollars by running ads on Wikipedia won’t create more conflict of interest than raising X dollars some other way.

Almost. The second X is Y and an order of magnitude or so smaller than X. McCluskey:

But the amount of money an organization handles has important effects on its behavior that are somewhat independent of the source of the money, and the purpose of ads seems to be to drastically increase the money that they raise.

I can’t provide a single example that provides compelling evidence in isolation, but I think that looking at a broad range of organizations with $100 million revenues versus a broad range of organizations that are run by volunteers who only raise enough money to pay for hardware costs, I see signs of big differences in the attitudes of the people in charge.

Wealthy organizations tend to attract people who want (or corrupt people into wanting) job security or revenue maximization, whereas low-budget volunteer organizations tend to be run by people motivated by reputation. If reputational motivations have worked rather well for an organization (as I suspect the have for Wikipedia), we should be cautious about replacing those with financial incentives.

It’s possible that the Wikimedia Foundation could spend hundreds of millions of dollars wisely on charity, but the track record of large foundations does not suggest that should be the default expectation.

Yes, this could be a major problem. As I said last year, “[advertising] could fund a staggering Wikimedia Foundation bureaucracy, or it could fund additional free knowledge projects.” The possibility that new funds will not be used effectively lowers the expected benefit of running ads. Two items give me some confidence that the Wikimedia Foundation would be less susceptible to waste than the average foundation:

  • Wikimedia Foundation’s history of transparency sets the tone for what would become a much larger organization
  • An incomparable set of watchdogs (Wikipedians)

Regarding subversion of current volunteer motivations and ethics (which is really the point of McCluskey’s post), I would not advocate financial incentives for functions currently carried out by volunteers, certainly not any content-related function. Of course given large amounts of money there would be pressure to convert an ever larger group of volunteers into employees, regardless of what advocates of advertising on Wikipedia might have wanted. The possibility that this would occur and go badly should also weigh against advertising.

Addressing this possibility, I concur with Per Abrahamsen’s recommendation segregating Wikimedia projects and foundation funding of compatible projects:

Wikipedia is clearly able to earn its own money, begging for donations on the front (and every other) page is an insult to both visitors, and to the many worthy cases that are not in that lucky position.

So I support advertising on Wikipedia.

The adds should be non-intrusive, textual, clearly separated from content, and selected algorithmically, similar to the adds known from Google.

However, if the money are really that big (more than the current need), additional precautions would have to be taken. The most important would be to split the foundation into two, with watertight boundaries between. One that ran the current Wikimedia projects, and another solely responsible for distribution the ad-money between causes that promote the goals of the foundation, but had no say in the running of any of the projects. Money do corrupt, hence the separation.

Slashdot commenter FooAtWFU (and others) suggested that the real problem with advertising is that large numbers of contributors would leave in protest, seriously damaging Wikipedia. I doubt it. A very vocal minority would raise hell and some of them would leave, at least temporarily. I suspect most contributors would not even notice the presence of ads. I conjecture that Wikipedia contributors, however superior some may feel, are not that different from MySpace “contributors” (who seem not to be deterred by gratutous advertising). In a relatively short time (a year is my wild guess) a majority of contributors would have become contributors after advertising had begun. Such is the nature of a rapidly growing site.

A 2002 fork of () could be interpreted as evidence in either direction. The fork apparently occurred in part due to “our rejection of censorship, of an editorial line, and of including advertising.” Whatever the merits of these claims, article counts show the fork growing more quickly for about a year and a half. From 2004 on Spanish Wikipedia grew much more quickly and currently is over five times the size of Enciclopedia Libre. So the loss of those ideologically motivated against advertising and perhaps with other complaints could be seen as a terrible blow to Spanish Wikipedia (a year or more delayed progress) or no big deal, considering current relative sizes. Is there any reason to think the proportion of Spanish Wikipedians disgusted by advertising is significantly different than that of any other language?

Of course it is possible if Wikipedia had taken ads in 2002, many more may have left, and perhaps the fork would now be five times the size of the parent instead of vice versa. This would not necessarily be a horrible thing. After all, the two sites (and any potential Wikipedia fork) use the same license, so work done on one is not entirely lost to the other.

This does suggest an experiment however — run ads on Spanish Wikipedia and see how many contributors move to Enciclopedia Libre. The existence of the latter would make it both easier for ad objectors to move and easier to determine who had moved, indicating a probable maximum negative impact on contributions to other Wikipedias, should they run ads, as no other language has an alternative as viable as Enciclopedia Libre — at least not viable for those who hate ads! The largest encyclopedic wikis outside Wikimedia run Google AdSense, e.g., (Russian) and (Swedish).

Debunking debunking bad debunkers

Monday, January 8th, 2007

Yesterday I attended a talk by Aubrey de Grey, the purpose of which seemed to be to get feedback on messaging to potential donors. The feedback was good, but perhaps hard to hear. I hope de Grey uses some of it. Much of the feedback could apply to anyone selling a radical program.

Don’t dwell on your critics. Debunking detractors is too easy, comfortable, and personal. Every second you’re telling me why your detractors are wrong you’re not telling me how your idea will work. Suspicious. Reason puts it well:

[E]very new idea, every plan, arrives associated with a raft of dumb objections, but you won’t convince a smart, educated audience of the merits of your idea by taking time to dispel the dumb objections. The world is full of dumb ideas – many more of them than good ideas. Dumb ideas also arrive accompanied by dumb objections (just look at any average day in politics…), and one of the chores of being involved in a funding organization is to listen to people trying to demonstrate that a dumb idea has merit by demolishing dumb objections to that dumb idea. This is a form of rhetorical alchemy – often performed quite innocently by those sold on a plan that just won’t work – that raises red flags for folk in funding organizations.

Don’t dwell on the of your program (unless they’re short term money makers). De Grey claimed that repairing each of the seven causes of aging (with the possible exception of mutant mitochondria) individually would cure a raft of diseases. If true, this should be more than adequate to fund fixes for each of the seven causes individually without ever mentioning any potential for life extension. De Grey claimed this is a hard argument to make, as curing individual diseases through other means will be less expensive than the relevant cause of aging fix. If true, de Grey is either extremely optimistic about conventional medical research or is lying about the level of funding needed for his program, considering the $US billions spent on individual disease research annually. I suspect de Grey is wrong on this point and hope other researchers and organizations take an engineering-fixes-for-causes approach via funding for individual disease research.

Since my last (peevish) post mainly about de Grey’s work slightly over a year ago, Methuselah Mouse Prize total ($1.6m received plus $2.5m committed) funding has risen by nearly $1m. More importantly $4m has been raised for the research program, with LysoSENS and MitoSENS work having begun. De Grey also had a more concrete plan for ramping up the research program as funding becomes available than I recall having seen before; unfortunately I couldn’t find it quickly at sens.org.

I still highly recommend giving to the Methuselah Mouse Prize/Foundation. Highly recommend would be an understatement. I don’t know of a more important cause.

Somewhat relatedly, I want to reiterate that even without repair technologies, increased lifespan over the past century was concomitant with decreased absolute time spent in a diseased state and that on an individual level, a healthy life expectancy increase is available now, no technology required.

Update 20070109: Reason argues that if the focus is not on fighting aging, progress will only be incidental and inefficient. Perhaps, but if nearly everyone is in a “pro-aging trance” as de Grey is fond of saying, should your marketing really depend on breaking that trance? Let’s face it, in all probability that trance will not be broken and relative to the medical innovations required is not even a major obstacle. Individuals will nearly always choose to prolong health and life (when self-control is not involved anyway), regardless of their emotional or religious attachments to death. In my view de Grey has done a great service by identifying a set of targets for repair and recommending an engineering approach. If there’s value in his approach it will be used by others with smaller goals resulting in faster and more efficient incidental progress against aging. The indefinite lifespan part of his pitch is just Macho Flash:

Macho Flash WORKS internally — at raising the most money from a small group of people (which then also KEEPS us small and insignificant).

BlackNet is a wiki?

Sunday, January 7th, 2007

Wikileaks, currently vapor, may be a joke. If Wikileaks is not a joke and if it successfully exposes a large number of secrets, I’d find it hilarious to see this happening on a public website and without financial incentives. P2P, digital cash, information markets, and crypto anarchy? Nope, just a wiki and a communinty.

Wikileaks FAQ:

WikiLeaks will be the outlet for every government official, every bureaucrat, every corporate worker, who becomes privy to embarrassing information which the institution wants to hide but the public needs to know. What conscience cannot contain, and institutional secrecy unjustly conceals, WikiLeaks can broadcast to the world.

Untraceable Digital Cash, Information Markets, and BlackNet (1997, but these ideas spread widely in the early 1990s):

One of the most interesting applications is that of “information markets,” where information of various kinds is bought and sold. Anonymity offers major protections for both buyers and sellers, in terms of sales which may be illegal or regulated. Some examples: corporate secrets, military secrets, credit data, medical data, banned religious or other material, pornography, etc.

Why is more information not leaked on the net already? The technology exists to do so anonymously and has for a long time. Why is there not (or to what extent is there) a market for secrets? Again, the technology exists.

Perhaps lack of the relevant institutions in each case. One could email secrets or post to a blog anonymously, but what then? Will anyone notice? One could want to sell secrets, but how to find a buyer?

If Wikileaks succeeds it will be because it will provide, or rather its community will be, the relevant institution. Again from the Wikileaks FAQ:

WikiLeaks opens leaked documents up to a much more exacting scrutiny than any media organization or intelligence agency could provide: the scrutiny of a worldwide community of informed wiki editors.

Instead of a couple of academic specialists, WikiLeaks will provide a forum for the entire global community to examine any document relentlessly for credibility, plausibility, veracity and falsifiability. They will be able to interpret documents and explain their relevance to the public. If a document is leaked from the Chinese government, the entire Chinese dissident community can freely scrutinize and discuss it; if a document is leaked from Somalia, the entire Somali refugee community can analyze it and put it in context.

I have not read the Wikileaks email archived at cryptome.

Invasion ethics

Saturday, January 6th, 2007

If a jurisdiction invades another, the invading jurisdiction must:

  • Grant full invader citizenship to citizens of the invaded jurisdiction upon demand, with all rights of previous citizens the invader;
  • If a supermajority in the invaded jurisdiciton desires annexation to the invader, the indvaded becomes a subjurisdiciton of the invader and all citizens of the invaded become citizens of the invader, equal to previous subjurisdictions and citizens of the invader.

A high standard? Disruptive of the politics of the invader jurisdiction? Justly so, considering the invader’s disruption of lives in the invaded jurisdiction.

A particularly savvy would-be invader may decide to skip the invasion step. Regarding Iraq, the U.S. jurisdiction is neither savvy nor responsible.