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October 31, 2009

Trippi: The New Them

Joe Trippi has an important post about to understand the upcoming election results: The electorate’s Us vs. Them has changed from Our Party vs. Their Party to The Electorate vs. Anyone in Power:

Voters are increasingly seeing themselves as “us” and both parties in Washington as “them.” They are not going to discriminate between the two parties in 2010. The results next Tuesday will likely demonstrate the voter’s frustration with those in power, regardless of party. Far from signaling a backlash against Democratic rule and hope for the Republican Party, the results on Tuesday will signal that in 2010 incumbents in both parties, of all ideological stripes should be frightened.

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October 30, 2009

Argument by analogy

A judge has ruled that email is not protected under the Fourth Amendment. This sounds wrong to me (although I am very much not a lawyer), but what I really enjoy are the many many arguments by analogy as slashdotters try to figure out what email is like, so we can see what privacy expectations to port over from the familiar world of telephones, Fedex trucks, and glass-bottom boats.

I’m not saying there’s a better way to figure this out. I just enjoy watching us flounder our way through ethical dilemmas.

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October 29, 2009

Taking sides with Droid: Hippies vs. Geeks

I’m finding the cultural politics of Droid‘s marketing to be fascinating.

Droid is Motorola’s competitor to the iPhone, based on Google’s open source Android operating system. Of course it’s marketing itself head-to-head against the iPhone. Verizon’s “iDon’t” ad was totally in iPhone’s face: iPhone doesn’t do x, y, and z, but Droid does.

But Droid isn’t just going against iPhone’s features. It’s drawing a cultural line. Apple is for hippies, it’s saying. Droid is for power geeks.

For example, at Verizon’s “Droid Does” page, if you click on “Open Development,” the message is:

Droid doesn’t judge app makers. We don’t care about their politics, their lifestyles or their attitude. If they make a great app, we will share it. That’s how we have over 10,000 apps in Android Marketâ„¢. Simple, isn’t it?

This is cross-over geek and business trash talk.

At “Hardcore,” the text is:

This is no granola crunching, flower child phone. It’s more powerful than you need and faster than you can handle. Basically, it’s everything you’ve ever wanted. And it’s ready to do your bidding. What shall you have it do first.

Weird anti-hippie, geek power lord, high-performance sports car, S&M vibe.

“Power” continues the sports car trope:

Look under the hood of this machine if you dare. There’s a fast CortextA8 processor, 16gb of memory expandable to 32gb and a WVGA 854×480 screen. Now step back. It’s revving up.

Out of my way, hippie!

And perhaps: Out of my way, girls! The Droid marketing is hitting a lot of (traditionally) male notes.

The cultural alignment will be fascinating to watch.

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October 28, 2009

Sharing DNA

BoingBoing runs a terrific photo of chimps watching a dead chimp being transported, and asks anyone to deny that the chimps are grieving.

On the one hand, I don’t doubt for a moment that animals feel emotions. (Neither did Darwin, by the way. He seems to have been quite connected to his dogs.) Nor do I doubt that the chimps are grieving. I just don’t think the photo is evidence of grief; someone who doesn’t think animals feel social emotions wouldn’t be swayed by it. It just shows that chimps can pay attention.

Of course, the more important point to me isn’t whether what chimps feel when a member of their group dies is grief or should be called something else. It isn’t even whether animals feel what we call emotions (although I’m sure they do). The point is that animals other than humans care about themselves, their world, and sometimes others. The caring can be so primitive that at one end of the spectrum it’s not worth arguing for, but pretty far down the stack I’m convinced that to deny that animals care about what happens to them — and, eventually, what happens to their significant others — is just perverse. That caring is what we feel as emotions. The fact of that caring is the fundamental reason I’m a vegetarian.

But, that’s not what I wanted to ask. The comments to the BoingBoing post are quite funny. Along the way someone points out that 98% of our DNA is the same as the chimp’s. Which always makes me want to ask: How much of our DNA do we share with animals not nearly as obviously like us? With whales? With flounders? With brine shrimp? How much difference is in that top 10% of shared DNA?

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October 27, 2009

[Berkman] Elizabeth Goodman on walled gardens

Elizabeth Goodman of UC Berkeley is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk on a project she’s just now beginning. It is, she says, “half-baked.” She’s going to compare walled gardens in the computer sense to the original referent of “walled garden” and experiences of community gardens which often are fenced off. She says she comes to this from a design background, and has been looking at “how the metaphors we use shape the possibilities we imagine for them and how people can act in them.”

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

A walled garden was originally a commons, a common ground people can use. We use the term in tech talk because it is a common and concrete metaphor. But, “its salience relies on associations with imagined wall gardens.” Can we expand the “walled gardens” metaphor to make it a more useful tool for thought? Can we do so by looking at real walled gardens?

The initial uses of the term (first in 1680 and then in 1757) was very positive. But digital wall gardens lack openness, can’t share info across networks, that limits what you can look at, etc. Examples: Kindle, the AppStore, and Facebook. When people illustrate digital WGs, they tend to show beautiful, Victorian gardens…not at all like what you experience in your Facebook stream.

Elizabeth notes that walled gardens originally were created not to keep people about to create a microclimate. Fires could be set to raise the temperature. This should help us to see WGs as places of work and production. “So, is it useful to compare how we think about digital walled garden social network sites to how urban gardeners think about members-only community gardens?”

She studied community gardeners and park volunteers in the SF area for two years, because she was interested in shared management. She points out two things about the community garden photo she’s showing: Only members get in, and they’re not collectively cultivated. Each person gets her own small plot. “It is kind of like MySpace”: You can make your own plot as hideously designed as you want and no one will bother you, although if you don’t maintain your site, you get kicked out. (She notes that someone has insisted on distinguishing gardening from landscaping, a distinction she does not much care about.)

Q: [me] Does “gardening” vs “maintaining” when applied to digital realms imply gender? Were gender implications driving its adoption?
A: Probably yes.

Q: How about farming vs. gardening?

[Discussion has become quite conversational, which is wonderful for everyone except the liveblogger.]

Q: Walled gardens keep people out. Digital WPs keep people in.

Q: People in digital WGs have no sense of shared maintenance/management.

WGs are actually less communitarian than I had thought.

Q: First time I heard something called a WG on the Net was AOL.

Q: Is using Flickr, Facebook, or MySpace a faustian bargain?

Q: Urban dwellers really like living near a community garden even if they don’t garden in it. The walls are fences so you can see what’s there.

EG: And that’s a bit like Flickr: People can see much of what you post there.

EG: Here’s a photo of an unwalled garden by a master grower who is going something like a social display of his skill/artistry. But here’s a photo of community garden where a bean plot is next to a mixed flower plot.

Q: [me, summarizing the back channel] The first use of “WG” was for AOL, where the pitch was the order and safety of AOL vs. the wildness of the Web. Now WG seems to refer to locked places. I.e., garden vs. wild becomes walled vs. unwalled.

Q: WGs demarcate space for special creative uses.

[I am doing a completely lousy job here. The conversation is too interesting, plus there's the backchannel. I give up. Sorry. You'll be able to find the webcast at the Berkman site.]

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Broadband Strategy Week video: FCC on broadband and economic opportunity

The latest interview with a member of the FCC Broadband strategy initiative is now up at BroadbandStrategyWeek.

Elana Berkowitz is Director of Economic Opportunities for the Omnibus Broadband Initiative at the FCC.

17:20 mins

0:00 What do you do?
2:30 It’s very complicated. How do you decide what should be done by the public sector, by the private?
3:53 What’s the process by which you gather this information? Have there been workshops?
4:45 Workshops specifically on economic development?
5:37 You have all of this open input, but at some point — Feb. 17 — you have to decide exactly what you’re going to recommend…

9:15 What are the chances that what you recommend will make use of existing social networking platforms that are privately held, as opposed to having the government build, or pay for the building of, a new type of platform that perhaps repeats some of the functionality privately built ones offer.
10:42 So we’re not likely to see FaceGov or TwitGov…?
11:22 Just in case, I think I’ll take those domain names :)
12:35 So, how can the social sector get involved in this?
14:25 You come to this job right after a citizen journalism project called Off the Bus. Can you explain that and the relation between these two phases of your life?

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October 26, 2009

Google’s data liberation front

I do like the fact that Google has a “Google Data Liberation Front.” Their mission: “Users should be able to control the data they store in any of Google’s products. Our team’s goal is to make it easier to move data in and out.” Google announced another positive step in this direction for Google Docs. All this is good, and even if it’s over-marketing Google’s openness, it’s the right value to be marketing.

Still, I wish it were easy to download a backup of my gmail.

LATER that day: Meanwhile, Microsoft is opening up its PST mailbox format.

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October 25, 2009

Is AT&T’s data overload self-inflicted?

Brough Turner summarizes and explains an hypothesis put forward by David Reed that much of AT&T’s bandwidth overload is self-inflicted.

As I understand it — which I admit is not very far — AT&T may have its servers misconfigured. If AT&T has set the servers’ buffers (particular servers — see Brough’s explanation) too large, then they disrupt the network’s traffic self-regulation loop. TCP increases its transmission rate until it starts losing packets. At that point, it cuts its transmission rate in half. So, if all those iPhones are transmitting packets that are being buffered instead of notifying the sending servers that they’re not being received, all those iPhones just keep increasing their transmission rates, further overloading the network.

Feel free to enumerate all the ways the following is wrong. I don’t claim to actually understand it. Here’s Brough’s summary:

It appears AT&T Wireless has configured their RNC buffers so there is no packet loss, i.e. with buffers capable of holding more than ten seconds of data. Zero packet loss may sound impressive to a telephone guy, but it causes TCP congestion collapse and thus doesn’t work for the mobile Internet!

If Reed’s hypothesis is correct, then presumably much of the congestion on AT&T’s network (but how much is much?) could be reduced by shrinking the buffers and allowing TCP to do the self-regulation it was designed to do.

:ATER: Brough’s article has been slashdotted.

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October 24, 2009

From the Berkman Center

Some posts from Berkpeople this week that I thought I’d call out:

Dan Gillmor responds to a Washington Post op-ed that calls for federal subsidies to support local news gathering.

Andrew Moshirnia at the Citizen Media Law Project opens his piece on the MPAA’s attempt to make some TV content un-recordable this way:

Between sparkling vampires and slobbering zombies, the Undead have found new life at the box office these days. So it makes sense that the MPAA, inspired by the success of the long deceased, has decided to resurrect the odorous, oft-defeated idea of “selectable output control.” We can only hope and pray that the FCC will shoot this idiotic (but dangerous) idea in the head, and grant consumers a brief respite (before the inevitable sequel). For those of you who are unaware of the movie industry’s idiotic plan to castrate and consume your DVR, allow me to shine a light on the lumbering terror.

Issa Villarreal at GlobalVoices writes about the rising sentiment in Mexico that Internet access is a necessity, not a luxury, despite the government’s new Internet taxes.

Chilling Effects reports on ClearChannel’s success at killing the annual Unity Day celebration in Philadelphia because it claims it has a trademark on the term, even though the celebrations started in 1979. Stupid stupid marketing, if nothing else.

And then there’s Ethan Zuckerman, wondering what gets some people so interested in other cultures that they’ll hollow out a winter jacket in Ghana to join with other Wu Tang lovers.

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FCC’s Net Neutrality discussion board

The FCC has put up a site — openinternet.gov — where anyone (after registering with a valid email address) can post an idea, or vote existing ideas up or down. I love the idea of the feds opening discussions up, although, I am not convinced that this particular implementation achieves its presumed aims. But, what the heck! Try-fail-try is the right rhythm for the Net.

The site defaults to listing the ideas reverse chronologically, which adds some serendipity, or you can choose to view them listed in order of popularity, which encourages piling on. You can also browse by category/tag.

Anyone who registers can post a comment. The comments are unthreaded, discouraging much development of ideas but also discouraging flaming. You can report a comment as being “abusive,” but otherwise cannot rate them.

At the moment, the most popular posting is from Tim Karr, who, according to his biography at SaveTheInternet.com, a site sponsored by FreePress.net, “oversees all Free Press campaigns and online outreach efforts, including SavetheInternet.com.” Tim — who I know a bit and like — is an activist. He has the most popular post at the FCC’s site presumably because FreePress.net sent out a mailing urging supporters to vote it up.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s how politics is played in this country. If an anti-NN group sponsored by, say, AT&T wanted to play the same game, it’s perfectly entitled to. It’s not hard to imagine a well-funded group swamping FreePress’s shoestring efforts and getting orders of magnitudes more people to thumbs-up an anti-NN comment.

Which is to say that an open discussion board like the one the FCC has posted can serve either of two purposes. It can be a place where people come for rational discussions across political positions, or it can serve as an informal poll of citizens’ sentiments about an issue. But combining the two means that neither works very well. It becomes simply an opportunity for gaming the system.

It seems to me that sites such as these cannot serve as a poll that has any value at all. Besides, we have lots of other ways of gauging public opinion, including scientific polling and elections. If, on the other hand, the FCC wants to sponsor a forum for useful discussion or to generate new ideas, it could modify the current implementation. For example — and these are just ideas that may turn out to be gigantic belly flops — comments could be divided into two tracks, pro and con, with most-popular listings for each. Readers could be allowed to vote up but not down. Comments could be threaded. The comments could be rated. Postings could have buttons for “agree/disagree” and “interesting,” so that the site could highlight articles that people disagree with but find interesting.

All of these techniques could be gamed because everything can be gamed. Some discussion boards do work, though. I don’t know what the magic keys are, but I’m pretty confident that a political discussion board that includes an overall popularity contest will so encourage gaming that its results will necessarily be unreliable. At the very least, the popularity contest should be confined to determining the best arguments for each side.

But I don’t want to close on a negative note, for the FCC is to be congratulated on its efforts to open its processes up not only to lobbyists and geeks who know how to walk and talk like an FCC commenter, but to the general public. And it’s doing so in the proper Webby way of taking small steps and not being afraid to fail in public. That takes guts.

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