Archive for November, 2007

DRM: the good bullshit story that got past Doug Morris

Monday, November 26th, 2007

New York Magazine cites an interview with CEO Doug Morris from the WIRED December issue (not yet online) that supposedly shows that Morris and his industry are utterly clueless. The excerpt from NYMag, emphasis added:

“There’s no one in the record industry that’s a technologist,” Morris explains. “That’s a misconception writers make all the time, that the record industry missed this. They didn’t. They just didn’t know what to do. It’s like if you were suddenly asked to operate on your dog to remove his kidney. What would you do?”

Personally, I would hire a vet. But to Morris, even that wasn’t an option. “We didn’t know who to hire,” he says, becoming more agitated. “I wouldn’t be able to recognize a good technology person — anyone with a good bullshit story would have gotten past me.”

Actually, knowing your limitations is pretty smart. Too bad the industry did not stick to the strategy of not hiring technology people. Music startups would’ve flourished, and the industry could have snapped up the obvious winners. Instead, Morris and friends eventually fell for a complete bullshit story — — that killed nascent startups and paved the way for Apple’s much-hated dominance.

Copyright turns even really smart technologists into disingenuous and even dangerous technology idiots (including me on occasion — the claims I dismissed in that last link, while overblown, may have some substance), so non-technologists should be really wary, and consistently so.

Update 20071128: The WIRED article is now online. Despite its sneering tone, I think comes off as a shrewd businessperson.

Smash international apartheid

Saturday, November 24th, 2007

Charles Johnson’s post of a couple weeks ago titled Sin Fronteras:

Perhaps the only consolation is that Sensible Liberals’ attempts to intervene in the debate and shift the rhetoric towards moderation have been so completely ineffectual. This controversy, like the debate over slavery, like the debate over abortion, and like all other controversies over simple moral issues, is and should be a debate between extremists, not a case for middle-of-the-roader rhetoric or halfway-house solutions. It is immoral for the government to stop, harass, restrain, confine, and exile peaceful people from their current homes, solely on the basis of their nationality. It is criminal that even one refugee cannot immediately escape from danger, or must live even one day longer penned up in a refugee concentration camp, simply because governments in the U.S. and Western Europe continue to enforce the SS St. Louis immigration policy. It is inexcusable that even one undocumented worker should have to live in fear of emergency workers, neighbors, or her boss, simply because she failed to get a signed permission slip from the federal government before she set out to make a living.

Read the whole thing. I link to it because it is a fine essay, but also because it ends with a link to the most excellent Manifesto of the Abolition of International Apartheid, which now has its own domain (and at this point, a mediocre website). The first of many times I have and will promote the Manifesto.

gOS: the web takes and gives

Saturday, November 24th, 2007

I imagine thousands of bloggers have commented on , a Linux distribution featuring shortcuts to Google web application on the desktop and preloaded on a PC sold (out) for $200 at Wal-Mart. Someone asked me to blog about it and I do find plenty interesting about it, so thus this post.

I started predicting that Linux would take over the desktop in 1994 and stopped predicting that a couple years later. The increasing dominance of web-based applications may have me making that prediction again in a couple more years, and gOS is a harbinger of that. Obviously web apps make users care less about what desktop operating system they’re running — the web browser is the desktop platform of interest, not the OS.

gOS also points to a new and better (safer) take on a PC industry business model — payment for placement of shortcuts to web applications on the desktop (as opposed to preloading a PC with crapware) — although as far as I know Google isn’t currently paying anything to the gOS developers or , which makes the aforementioned cheap PC.

This is highly analogous to the Mozilla business model with a significant difference: distribution is controlled largely by hardware distributors, not the Mozilla/Firefox site, and one would expect end distributors to be the ones in a position to make deals with web application companies. However, this difference could become muted if lots of hardware vendors started shipping Firefox. This model will make the relationship of hardware vendors to software development, and particularly open source, very interesting over the next years.

One irony (long recognized by many) is that while web applications pose a threat to user freedoms gained through desktop free and open source software, they’ve also greatly lowered the barriers to desktop adoption.

By the way, the most interesting recent development in web application technology: Caja, or Capability Javascript.

Requirements for community funding of open source

Saturday, November 24th, 2007

Last month another site for aggregating donation pledges to open source software projects launched.

I’m not sure there’s anything significant that sets Cofundos apart from microPledge featurewise. Possibly a step where bidders (pledgers) vote on which developer bid to accept. However I’m not certain how a developer is chosen on microPledge — their FAQ says “A quote will be chosen that delivers the finished and paid product to the pledgers most quickly based on their current pledging rate (not necessarily the shortest quote).” microPledge’s scheme for in progress payments may set it apart.

In terms of marketing and associations, Cofundos comes from the Agile Knowledge Engineering and Semantic Web research group at the University of Leipzig, producers of , about which I’ve written. Many of the early proposed projects are directly related to AKSW research. Their copyright policy is appreciated.

microPledge is produced by three Christian siblings who don’t push their religion.

Cofundos lists 61 proposed projects after one month, microPledge lists about 160 after about three and a half months. I don’t see any great successes on either site, but both are young, and perhaps I’m not looking hard enough.

Cofundos and microPledge are both welcome experiments, though I don’t expect either to become huge. On the other hand, even modest success would set a valuable precedent. In that vein I’ve been pretty skeptical about the chances of Fundable, they seem to have attracted a steady stream of users. Although most projects seem to be uninteresting (pledges for bulk purchases, group trips, donations to an individual’s college fund, etc), some production of public goods does seem to being funded, including several film projects in the small thousands of dollars range. Indeed, “My short film” is the default project name in their form for starting a project.

It seems to me that creating requirements and getting in front of interested potential donors are the main challenges for sites focused on funding open source software like Cofundos and microPledge (both say they are only starting with software). Requirements are just hard, and there’s little incentive for anyone to visit an aggregator who hasn’t aggregated anything of interest.

I wonder if integrating financial donations into project bug tracking systems would address both challenges? Of course doing so would have risks, both of increasing bureaucracy around processing bugs and feature requests, necessity of implementing new features (and bugs) in the relevant bug tracking software, and altering the incentives of volunteer contributors.

Via Open Knowledge Foundation Blog.

bar : sex :: social networking site : spam

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

Brad Templeton on Facebook apps that aggressively request access to your private data (relatedly Templeton on the economics of privacy and identity is a must read) and spam your friends:

Apps are not forced to do this. A number of good apps will let people see the data, even put it in feeds, without you having to “install” and thus give up all your privacy to the app. What I wish is that more of us had pushed back against the bad ones. Frankly, even if you don’t care about privacy, this approach results in lots of spam which is trying to get you to install apps. Everybody thinks having an app with lots of users is going to mean bucks down the road, with Facebook valued as highly as it is.

But a lot of it is plain old spam, but we’re tolerating it because it’s on Facebook. (Which itself is no champion. They have an extremely annoying email system which sends you an e-mail saying, “You got a message on facebook, click to read it” rather than just including the text of the message. To counter this, there is an “E-mail me instead” application which tries to make it easier for people to use real E-mail. And I recently saw one friend add the text “Use E-mail not facebook message” in her profile picture.)

The title of this post was my first Facebook status message earlier this year. In other words, social networking sites are all about lowering social boundaries. I am completely comfortable sending messages to people I barely know (if that) on Facebook that I would only consider (and often not) send to close friends and regular correspondents via email or instant messaging.

Ironically social networks could be used to fight spam and otherwise bootstrap reputation systems. I am mildly surprised that although trust is perhaps the most interesting feature of social networks, as far as I know nobody has done anything interesting with them (at least social networking sites) in this respect. An occasional correspondent even suggested recently that reputation is a kind of anti-feature for social networking sites, and reputation features tend to be hidden or turned off.

My other (unoriginal, but older) observation about social networking sites is that while at first blush the sector should be winner-take-all driven by network effects, but instead we’ve already seen a few leaders surpassed, and I highly doubt Facebook will take all. I have two explanations. First, the sites don’t have much power to lock users in, even though it is hard to export data — users have contact information for remotely valuable contacts outside the site, in address books, buddy lists, and email archives, and can recreate their network on a new site relatively easily. Second, social networking sites don’t yet have a killer application. Although Facebook has allowed many third party apps on its platform, I have yet to see one that I would miss, and very few I return to. I doubt I’d miss Facebook (or any other social networking site) much period if I were banned from it (I know that many students would disagree about Facebook and musicians about MySpace).

Semantic Web Web Web

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

The and particularly its efforts do great, valuable work. I have one massive complaint, particularly about the latter: they ignore the Web at their peril. Yes, it’s true, as far as I can tell (but mind that I’m one or two steps removed from actually working on the problems), that the W3C and Semantic Web activities do not appreciate the importance of nor dedicate appropriate resources to the Web. Not just the theoretical Web of URIs, but the Web that billions of people use and see.

I’m reminded of this by Ian Davis’ post Is the Semantic Web Destined to be a Shadow?:

My belief is that trust must be considered far earlier and that it largely comes from usage and the wisdom of the crowds, not from technology. Trust is a social problem and the best solution is one that involves people making informed judgements on the metadata they encounter. To make an effective evaluation they need to have the ability to view and explore metadata with as few barriers as possible. In practice this means that the web of data needs to be as accessible and visible as the web of documents is today and it needs to interweave transparently. A separate, dry, web of data is unlikely to attract meaningful attention, whereas one that is a full part of the visible and interactive web that the majority of the population enjoys is far more likely to undergo scrutiny and analysis. This means that HTML and RDF need to be much more connected than many people expect. In fact I think that the two should never be separate and it’s not enough that you can publish RDF documents, you need to publish visible, browseable and engaging RDF that is meaningful to people. Tabular views are a weak substitute for a rich, readable description.

Bond prices on historical and contemporary civil war outcomes

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

Did Johnny Reb have a Fighting Chance? A Probabilistic Assessment from European Financial Markets (PDF) by Kim Oosterlinck and Marc D. Weidenmier looks at Confederate gold bonds traded in Amsterdam from August 1863 through the end of the war, taking bond price (probability of repayment) as the probability of Confederate victory (meaning survival as an independent state that could service its debts).

A very interesting new window on history, one that is crying out to be applied to other situations were a government faces an existential threat, as the authors point out:

Although this study has focused on the American Civil War, the methodology employed in this paper could easily be applied to several other historical or modern day episodes to provide some insight into the evolution of victory probabilities during a period of civil war/revolution. The methodology might be particularly interesting to apply to a communist revolution given that Marxist regimes generally repudiate a country’s debt obligations and do not recognize international capital markets. For example, it might be interesting to know the evolution of victory (defeat) probabilities during the Spanish Civil War or the Cuban Revolution of the 1960s. Another possibility is to use the technique to estimate the probability that the thirteen colonies would win the American Revolution. The methodology could also be extended to estimate the probability of a victory by Germany during World War I or the Nazis during World War II. Applying the methodology to the world wars would be more complicated given that it is not clear whether the recovery value of the war bonds would be zero in the event of a defeat. We leave these items for future research.

What do bond prices say about contemporary Iraq? I don’t see any nice graph over time, but apparently current prices imply an 80% chance of default over the lifetime of one issue (through 2028), and apparently the “surge” hasn’t improved bond investor outlook.

Interesting, but survival of a government willing to repay past debts is way too coarse for most policy decisions and the probability of various policy decisions are not disaggregated. For these reasons prediction markets contingent on policy implementation and electoral outcomes are badly needed.

Via Robin Hanson.

1 trillion dollars, 1 million lives, 1 fraud

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

What Does Iraq Cost? Even More Than You Think. by Tyler Cowen cites sources putting the direct financial cost to the U.S. government at over $1 trillion, though Cowen’s point is that taking into account opportunity costs, the price is higher.

I don’t believe I’ve posted about this trillion dollar fraud since January 2006. I just have to point out yet again that there’s nothing unusual about Iraq: advocates of war routinely underestimate the costs by a factor of ten (which makes such estimates fraudulent, in my estimation).

Vegan cuisine day

Thursday, November 1st, 2007

November 1 was apparently World Vegan Day (via Zenpawn).

Earlier this year prior to visiting a city I asked someone who recently lived in that city and since returning to San Francisco has been on a vegan diet whether they knew of any great vegan restaurants in the city I would visit. Their reply was something like “no, I’ve only been vegan since I returned.” Which strikes me as odd — as if one would not eat at a Chinese restaurant because one is not Chinese.

I’ve encountered (mostly through overhearing) this strange attitude before — people who think that going to a vegan or merely vegetarian restaurant is crazy unless one is a vegan or vegetarian, or just maybe if a crazy veg*n friend or relative drags one along. I’ll chalk this up to a combination of general lack of imagination and negative reaction to vegan identity entrepreneurs.

As an alternative, I propose November 2 as “Vegan Cuisine Day” — the message is not “Go Vegan” but “go to a vegan restaurant” and discover a new cuisine.